Dooars Garden Workers Halt Strike, Owners Complain of Losses

SILIGURI, Assam, India

Several days of disruptions of tea shipments due to worker unrest in the Dooars and Terai regions of West Bengal led to costly losses according to garden owners.

The Indian Tea Association (ITA) said that tea growers suffered crop losses as high as Rs 25 crore ($5.5 million) a day as a result of the strike. Estimates vary but losses quickly mounted as strikers closed major highways and refused to process tea at 195 gardens.

The Progressive Tea Workers’ Union (PTWU) the labor arm of the Akhil Bharatiya Adivasi Vikas Parishad (ABAVP) began the five-day general strike last week. Others followed and soon roadblocks, street protests with some incidents of violence stopped the flow of tea at factories and major highways.

An ITA official told PTI that since the weather this year was favourable, the estimated crop loss in the region was 1.2 million kilograms on account of non-plucking of tea. He said the effect of the strike would be felt for nearly a month and would cause further monetary loss.

Ten days ago, after threatening to strike, PTWU resumed efforts to stop the dispatch of processed tea from the Terai and the Dooars. Union officials sanctioned five days of peaceful protests (known as a bandh) at all the region’s gardens.

The Coordination Committee of Tea Plantation Workers and Defence Committee for Plantation Workers Rights, which combined represents 36 garden workers’ unions, estimated the strike involved 300,000 tea garden and production workers at 153 Dooars gardens and 42 gardens in the Terai.

The Hindustan Times reports that “five rounds of negotiations between the trade unions, state labour department and the Consultative Committee of Tea Plantation Association (CCPA) have already been held. The last round of meetings in Kolkata on Aug. 5 failed after the CCPA, the apex body of tea planters, and trade unions failed to reach compromise formulas… the planters' offer was rejected by trade unions out right and they announced their agitational programmes.”

Workers seeking a daily wage of INR 250 ($5.67) from the current INR 67 ($1.52) stopped tea shipments from Dooars and Terai gardens but withdrew their embargo during talks. They also see reintroduction of the variable dearness allowance (VDA). Planters countered with an offer to pay IRN 75 ($1.65) daily with a total INR 24 (.53 cents per day) to INR 91 ($2.01) per day over three years.

Industries Minister Partha Chatterjee and Labour Minister Purnendu Bose attempted to avert the strike by meeting Friday with both parties.

The Times of India reported that Chatterjee told union officials "A new government has just taken over and is trying to improve the situation in the state. Strikes should not take place at this critical moment.“

“But if workers withdraw their strike, the garden owners should not think that they have withdrawn their demand. There should be such an understanding that either side goes back with the feeling that it has got something out of the negotiations," the minister added.

A three-year wage agreement with the Darjeeling Terai Dooars Plantation Labour Union, affiliated to the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, and PTWU expired March 31.

Similar action last February in the Darjeeling district of West Bengal resulted in wage increases. In Darjeeling, which exports 40 percent of its tea, prices held steady (SEE: India Growers earning Top Prices for Premium Tea).

The situation is quite different in Dooars and Terai where demand for exports has fallen as production has increased. Since January the region has produced 50,491 million kg compared to the 47,560 kg during the same period last year. Prices at the beginning of the harvest were INR 130 to 150 ($2.95 to $3.40) but have since fallen to INR 120 ($2.70) per kg of CTC black tea. Dooars annually produces 180 million kg and Terai 50 million kg of tea.

Owners say gardens cannot support a four-fold wage increase.

K.K. Mintri, a planter and a member of the Tea Association of India told the Calcutta Telegraph that “Tea prices are coming down by Rs 4-5 at every auction because of a surge in the supply and dip in exports. In case the embargo continues for a fortnight, the garden owners will face a financial crisis. We are apprehensive about law and order problems as some planters might find it difficult to pay the laborers their wages.”

Traders say prices will fall even more once the embargo was withdrawn. “The market is flush with CTC tea now because of higher supply and less exports. Once the strike is withdrawn, each garden will desperately try to clear its stock and earn money. This would lead to accumulation of tea in the market and further decrease in the price,” said Ankit Lochan, a tea merchant and exporter based in Siliguri.

Source: Hindustan Times, Times of India, Calcutta Telegraph