Tea workers fear lean season hindrance to tea wage negotiation

 Trade unions fear that if tea wages for Dooars workers are not revised before Diwali, planters may delay the negotiation and extend it to next year citing the three-month lean season starting from November.

Around 2.5 lakh tea workers are yet to get the new scale to be revised from the existing Rs 67 per day.

The trade unions had been insisting on Rs 90 a day like the hill workers, a proposal that has been shot down by planters who have argued that Darjeeling Tea is sold at a much higher price than CTC, which is grown in the Dooars. So, the salary of hill workers could not be compared with those in the plains.

“We had been waiting eagerly for Durga Puja to end and want the wages to be finalised at the earliest. It would be best if it is settled before Diwali, which is around 20 days away,” said Aloke Chakraborty, the Darjeeling district president of Intuc, the trade union of the Congress.

“If no decision is reached till Diwali and the current month ends, it will be difficult for us to negotiate as the lean season will commence from November. Planters, who will not earn during these months because of halt in production, may delay the negotiation till the next season starting in March 2012,” said Chakraborty.

The current wages are paid on the basis of a three-year tripartite agreement signed in 2008.

It expired on March 31 this year and since then there had been seven rounds of unsuccessful tripartite talks. The last was held on the first week of September.

“During the course of the negotiation, we brought down our demands considerably but the planters have refused to relent even then,” said Sukra Munda, the chairperson of the Akhil Bharatiya Adivasi Vikas Parishad-backed Progressive Tea Workers’ Union

“Given the trend of talks, we doubt whether any agreement will be signed at all in the coming lean season. It is best to bargain and convince planters in the next 15-20 days to agree to a revised scale, that is, before Diwali and immediately after Puja.”

The state labour department has called another round of tripartite talks on October 13.

“We are now hoping that the talks succeed as already six months of the current fiscal has passed. Workers want an early solution, as they are aware that their counterparts in the Darjeeling hills are earning Rs 90 a day. They will surely get arrears as the new agreement will be effective from April 1, 2011 but it is a test of patience,” said Samir Roy, convener of the Defence Committee for Plantation Workers Rights, an apex body of tea trade unions.

Planters, however, said the gardens had suffered considerably in the September 18 earthquake.

“Most of the gardens in the Terai and the Dooars have suffered damage and some have incurred losses worth crores,” said Prabir Bhattacharjee, the secretary of the Dooars Branch of the Indian Tea Association. “Regarding settlement of wages, we were never reluctant to negotiate. We had already submitted detailed information to the state government about the expenses incurred to run a tea estate.”

“It is not the question of lean season but the affordability of the tea companies that has to be kept in mind. The trade unions should rationalise their demands. We too had proposed a revised wage and do not want to drag on the issue. We are hopeful of a positive outcome at the meeting called by the state labour department next week,” he added.

Source: The Telegraph