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As rising inflation punctures wage hike, tea workers seek more — land rights, better health facilities

At present, Darjeeling has a total of 87 tea estates, including many of the world's largest working plantations. While most of the owners make profits, the tea workers get a basic wage of just Rs 120-250 a day, which is the lowest among all other plantation industries.

Written by Sweety Kumari | Darjeeling |
July 3, 2022 3:25:12 am
Women tea workers at Ging tea eastate in Darjeeling. (Express Photo Partha Paul)

Two weeks since the Labour Department of the West Bengal government notified a 15 per cent hike or Rs 30 raise in the daily wage of tea garden workers, 51-year-old Sara Tamang is not very enthusiastic over the raise.

“I heard that they have revised the daily wages by Rs 30. We haven’t got the revised amount yet. But I want to know what you get for 30 rupees today,” Tamang asks wryly, pointing to the rising inflation – from hike in LPG cylinders to overall increase in food prices.

Tamang, who has been working in the tea gardens of North Bengal for over 15 years, is raising her two daughters – both studying in colleges — alone after her husband died nine years ago.

“I earn about Rs 5,000 a month with a daily wage of Rs 202. My daughters attend college daily, their daily fare to college is more than my entire salary. So, they have started teaching students,” she says, adding that with sky-rocketing LPG cylinder prices, refilling a cylinder every month has become difficult now.

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“Now we don’t cook on gas unless it is for special occasions. We have started using firewood again,” says Tamang,
who works in a tea garden in Lebong Valley, located just 10 km from Darjeeling town.

“I have struggled my entire life. I don’t want my daughter to work in a tea garden, I wouldn’t mind if they leave this place for work and lead a life like girls in cities do,” Tamang says.

A hike in daily wage doesn’t excite her anymore.

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“I am not happy with this (wage hike). We don’t have health insurance. If we fall ill and take a day’s leave it is cut from our monthly payment… I want the government to give us facilities like medical care, land rights,” says Tamang.

The story remains the same in almost all the tea gardens – be it Rangeet and Ging in Darjeeling and Thurbo in Mirik.

At present, Darjeeling has a total of 87 tea estates, including many of the world’s largest working plantations. While most of the owners make profits, the tea workers get a basic wage of just Rs 120-250 a day, which is the lowest among all other plantation industries.

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Most of the tea garden workers said minimum wages, land rights, neglected tea gardens and food rations are the biggest issues being faced by them.

On July 14, the state Labour Department notified an interim hike of 15 per cent in the daily wages of tea garden workers soon after Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee made the announcement during her trip to Alipurduar in North Bengal. As per the notification, tea garden owners will have to raise the daily wage of “rated workers” by Rs 30 or 15 percent of their current pay — from Rs 202 to Rs 232. The notification for the interim hike, however, is not likely to be implemented before January 2023.

Unhappy with the revision, tea workers and unions, who have been demanding more welfare measures and rights of tea workers, want the government to fix the minimum wages instead of interim hikes.

“Before 2014, wages were revised through negotiations. That was the tradition. For the first time, tea workers in 2014 demanded a structured pay and 29 trade unions launched a joint campaign for it. We didn’t sign the traditional agreement of pay revision that year. In 2015, the West Bengal government agreed that in six months a structured wage will be announced. A small committee called an advisory board was formed comprising union members, tea gardens owners and bureaucrats. After nearly 17 meetings, there was no agreement on minimum wage. Finally, on December 13, 2018, the advisory board submitted a report saying that minimum wage policy should be implemented from January 2019. But that didn’t happen. Again, on June 2, 2020, they agreed to give a minimum wage of Rs 212. But we said that it should be fixed after evaluating the seventh pay commission. Recently, the Labour Department temporarily revised the daily wage of 15 per cent hike or Rs 30 even though the interim amount proposed earlier was Rs 250,” says Saman Pathak, working president of Darjeeling District Tea Kaman Majdoor Union.

“It is an industry where wages are revised on the basis of negotiations, and interim revisions are made during meetings. It is not her (referring to Chief Minister Banerjee) police, or PWD department where she can randomly decide an amount. The interim notification has basically benefitted the tea garden owners. They feel that after the recent revision, tea workers won’t ask for minimum wage at least for the time being. Basically, they have tried to divert the focus,” Pathak says.

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On fixing the minimum wages, a consistent demand of the tea workers, PK Bhattacharya, the president of Tea Association of India, says: “While the issue of minimum wages has not been resolved or no government has taken a concrete step on it, one will have to acknowledge that a code of wages has been notified by an Act of Parliament. The State rules mentions that the Central government has to declare the flow level minimum wages and no state can have minimum wages that are lower than the flow level wages. This is a big constraint. Now, no government has gone out for notification for minimum wages. Since, the process to fix minimum wages has been on, what the governments of both Assam and West Bengal have been doing is issuing administrative orders by revising wages from time to time – the last being in June 2022.”

According to Bhattacharya, the tea workers are categorised in two groups– “daily rated worker” and “monthly rated workers”.

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“The recent notification on interim wages mentions 15 per cent raise for both “daily rated worker” and “monthly rated workers”. While the daily rated workers are happy with the rise, the staff and the sub-staff feel that the raise is not enough. Now, they are threatening strike… The government is convening another meeting on July 4. The government is in favour of giving interim rise. The intentions are clear. So, the process is not being delayed by the employers.”

While the association claims to bring in changes, tea workers claim, nothing has changed on the ground in all these years.

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Vaskar Gurung, whose mother has worked in a tea garden for 30 years, says: “Wages, medical facilities and housing are the three problems being faced by tea garden workers. Due to inflation, it is getting difficult for workers to sustain their families. Also, there is not a single big hospital in the area. If anyone falls sick, we are forced to travel for at least two hours to Siliguri for medical treatment,” says Vaskar. “We do have boots but the risk of snake bites and poisonous chemicals are always there… Headaches, knee pains, muscular pains, severe back pains are very common among us,” says Malti Tamang, a tea worker of Thurbo Gopaldhara Tea Garden in Mirik sub-division.
As 45-year-old Lalita Gurung hurriedly wraps up her house chores to walk down 10 km from Malegawn to Ging Tea Estate in the Lebong Valley in Darjeeling, she ruefully says: “The tea gardens too will die a slow death due to non-availability of adequate labours. Who would want their children to work in a tea garden which is the most neglected sector?”

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First published on: 03-07-2022 at 03:25:12 am

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