Despite months of meetings to decide minimum wages for tea garden workers in Siliguri, negotiations between plantation owners’ associations and workers unions reached an impasse Sunday as both sides remained firm on their respective demands.
While tea garden workers’ unions demanded that the consumption unit (a part of the minimum wage which factors in cost of food) be given at a ratio of 1:3 — wherein each worker receives payment to be able to feed three family members — plantation associations wanted the same to be not more than 1:1.5. There is no notified minimum wage as of now.
“The reason we want the consumption unit to not be more than 1.5 is that unlike all other industries, in tea plantations, more than one adult (member of a family) works at the tea garden. At the very least, the husband and wife in each household are both employed,’’ said Prabir Bhattacharya, Secretary-General, Tea Association of India.
However, tea garden unions said that is not enough. “With inflation and rising costs, even this new wage is very difficult for a worker to sustain on. The absenteeism at tea gardens is increasing, with only 26-27 per cent workers turning up. Instead, they have been going outside to work as it pays more. With the wage having increased, some workers came back, but the workforce still stands at 32 per cent, this is across Darjeeling and Dooars,” said General Secretary National Union Plantation Workers Mani Kumar Darnal.
He further said, “For years, workers have been demanding that the management provide them housing on lease at least. They don’t own land or homes, and no one wants to work as a coolie any longer. This is one of the reasons why migration from plantations is so high…In 1952, the state government itself had notified that the consumption unit should be 1:3 in tea gardens, so it is not as if we are saying something unprecedented, we are simply reminding the government of its own order.’’
Darnal also pointed out that on all other provisions — such as food, housing and rent, ration, cloth, fuel and lighting — “a consensus has already been reached’’. “This is the only bone of contention now. We hope to resolve it in our next meeting in January so that the minimum wage can be implemented quickly,” he added.
A protracted battle
# When it began: Tea garden workers were getting paid Rs 95 per day each in 2014. But after allegations surfaced of tea workers dying of starvation, proper wages and rations not been distributed and of increased migration of workers from tea estates of North Bengal to other states (particularly Kerala) to work as masons, a ‘Minimum Wages Advisory Committee’ was set up by in February 2015.
# Interim relief: In 2014, the wage was increased by Rs 17.50. In 2015-16, an additional Rs 10 was added and another Rs 10 was added in 2016-17, revising the wages from Rs 95 per worker per day to Rs 132.50 per worker per day.
# Changes under FSA: In February 2016, according to the National Food Security Act, rations were to be provided by the state government, a task earlier assigned to the plantation management. In lieu of the savings made from this, the state ordered Rs 9 per worker per day be added to the wages, effective May 2018. In January this year, the government ordered another increase of Rs 17.50 and Rs 10 from September 2018.
# What workers get today: After the various interim relief over the past few years, the wages being given to tea garden workers at the present moment is Rs 176.