Assam and West Bengal Labor Unions Consider Collaborating

Aside from increasing pay the objectives of labor unions representing tea workers in West Bengal differ from those in the neighboring state of Assam.

Different contract terms, different state regulations and a lower pay rate in Assam previously kept the many groups involved in collective bargaining from joining forces.

Last week a handshake agreement between 22 labor unions representing workers in West Bengal and the INTUC in Assam signaled a new dynamic. INTUC represents 800,000 tea workers, about 90% of those employed in the region which produces half of India’s tea.

WTN140901_DarjeelingTeaGardenWest Bengal produces many fewer kilos but with greater value. Workers there have traditionally received better pay and benefits. Tea grown in Darjeeling is principally high-altitude China bush while Assam harvests Assamica on large plantations employing 2,000 workers. West Bengal’s terrain is rugged and gardens there are smaller. In between Assam and Darjeeling is the foothills region, a mix of large and small plantations.

Currently West Bengal unions are bogged down in discussions over wages and benefits following the March 31 expiration of a statewide agreement with plantation managers. In Assam similar negotiations are soon to begin.

This week the two labor groups are expected to jar ongoing negotiations with an announcement they will negotiate as a block.

West Bengal CITU State Vice President Ajit Sarkar told The Economic Times “This issue of wage brings us close to each other as we all are equal victim and we want end of this for all workers.”

CITU and the other West Bengal unions gain by adding the huge membership of INTUC. The latter benefits from the more sophisticated and effective efforts of the West Bengal labor organizations.
West Bengal unions, for example, successfully negotiated an electricity allowance in 1991. Assam unions were unable to add these terms to their contracts until 1995. West Bengal was first to reach a INRs90 per day minimum wage. Negotiations to bring the same wages to Assam workers followed.

Prabir Bhattacharya, Secretary General of the Tea Association of India told The Economic Times that the circumstances in Assam and Bengal “are different. So I do not see how this conglomeration can work out common things. But yes, I shall appreciate if this can do some good for the industry as a whole.”

Planters’ association members have not responded. Negotiations with West Bengal workers are scheduled to begin this week.

Wages are currently set at INRs95 per day ($1.57). Workers are pressing for an increase to INRs2772 to INRs3467 ($45.85 to $57.34) per month depending on skills. The demand amounts to INRs101 to INRS119 ($1.82 to $1.97) per day for a 26-work day month.

Plantation associations countered with an annual increase of INRs10 in each of the following three years to INRs125 per day by April 2017.

See related story: Wage Negotiations for additional details.

Source: The Economic Times