The Joint Forum of trade unions in the tea sector in the Indian state of West Bengal have called for a “united peaceful rally” on August 1. The Forum announced the rally during a meeting last week and stated that the goal is to press their long-standing demands. They also sent a memorandum to the district and national level government authorities, including the Planter’s Association, an employers association.
According to workers, their main grievances include the violation of the Minimum Wage Act and the Food Security Act, as well as the absence of a provision for household land rights to landless workers in tea plantation areas. The residents of tea gardens face a host of problems in enrolling in government welfare projects and are deprived of a secure, dignified life.
Abhijit Mazumdar, the working president of the Tarai Sangrami Cha Shramik Union, said one of the demands also is for retirement at the age of 60.
The Joint Forum is a platform of about 29 tea workers’ unions from different political affiliations, excluding the ones affiliated with the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) party. The Forum has also sought the intervention of finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman and West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee to implement the Minimum Wage Act for the tea workers.
Historically, the wages of tea garden workers are revised in three-year intervals. However, in 2014, the unions formed the Joint Forum and demanded that the Minimum Wage Act be made applicable to tea garden workers as well.
However, securing the minimum wage for tea workers in West Bengal still remains a pipe-dream despite five years of organizing, a strong solidarity movement, 14 tripartite meetings with the State government, as well as numerous strikes and lockouts. With the intervention of trade unions, the tea industry in Bengal has, over the years, recorded myriads of conflicts between the tea plantation workers and the employers.
Aloke Chakraborty, president of the All India Trade Union Congress from Darjeeling district, said, “Around 450,000 tea workers have been facing severe distress due to the prolonged negligence. The situation has deteriorated further now. Many tea gardens have been closed down. We are surprised that no step has been taken so far by the State government or the central government to reopen the gardens.”
In February 2015, workers signed a tripartite agreement with the Mamata Bannerjee-led TMC government to implement minimum wage for the workers. In August 2018, a Wage Advisory Committee and it proposed INR 172 per day as minimum wage, which also included compensation for procuring food grains. The Joint Forum, however, made a counter proposal of INR 239 per day.
The main disagreement of the Joint Forum was the lack of consideration of ‘fringe benefits’, such as clothing, housing, and medical facilities in the proposed wages by the advisory committee. According to the Joint Forum, the wages also failed to take into account the monetized value of education, health and old age provisions, which are important for the sustenance of the tea plantation laborers.
“The State government, in the 14th tripartite meeting in December 2018, has accepted our demand to consider various other benefits in deciding upon the minimum wages of the tea workers. However, it has failed to act on those deliberations.” Ziaul Alam, general secretary of the Cha Bagicha Shramik Union, told NewsClick. “Mere assurances were provided to us and, as is known, assurances don’t solve problems,” added Alam.
Several strikes were recorded last year over the implementation of the minimum wages act by the agitating members of the Joint Forum. The loss of a single working day in the tea industry during peak season will have massive repercussions on the tea industry as a whole.