Tea Workers Unease Over Wage Negotiations

WTN140825_ART_LaborNegotiations[1]SILIGURI, West Bengal, India – News accounts describe a growing uneasiness between tea workers and management following unsuccessful negotiations on wage increases.

Several thousand workers, representing 22 labor unions and 300 tea gardens, gathered for a rally last week, marching through the streets of Siliguri in hopes of moving talks forward after five unsuccessful sessions.

The three-year wage and benefits contract expired in April. The agreement establishes minimums for 350,000 workers on 400 gardens in Darjeeling, the Dooars and Terai tea growing regions of West Bengal.

“We demanded that the State government should finalize a minimum wage structure for the tea garden workers. The other demand was reopening of the five closed tea gardens of the region,” Chitta Dey, an octogenarian leader associated with labor unions told The Hindu.

Negotiators continue to make progress, but union demands and the counter offer by plantation managers are far apart.

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.

tea garden workersSome unions are seeking IRNs338 per day for skilled workers. The Economic Times filed this report:

“The trade union wing of Trinamool Congress, the ruling party in Bengal, demanded a wage of INRs206 a day including the cash value of statutory benefits while the joint platform of tea trade unions including those affiliated with CITU, INTUC etc. has asked for INRs285 plus variable dearness allowance.”

“We want wage parity with NREGA (National Rural Employment Guarantee Act 2005) that offers INRs169 to unskilled and INRs338 to skilled workers. All tea workers are skilled workers. Thus, their total wage including fringe benefit should be INRs338 a day,” said Samir Roy, convener of Defense committee of Plantation Workers Rights, a conglomeration of tea trade unions.

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

The government is urging the unions to consider sequential daily wage hikes of INRs25, 15 and 10 over the next three years.

In addition to wages, gardens must also by law provide shelter, subsidized food, maternity leave and medical care and education for the children of workers employed at the garden. Workers also receive a pension fund contribution, a bonus at holidays and productivity incentives that vary from garden to garden. India’s average household income is $1,490 per year or about $124 per month (without subsidies).

Three way talks between the government, labor unions and associations representing the interest of planters have made little headway since the last contract expired. The three parties are scheduled to meet again this week.

Meanwhile isolated incidents of violence and unrest are making headlines in the Calcutta press.
Last week’s street march was also staged to draw attention to the plight of workers on tea gardens that had been abandoned by management. In these instances workers are often stranded without any means of support. As many as 30,000 workers are living on abandoned gardens, many suffer from malnutrition and lack of medical care.

A delegation of the joint forum of tea garden labor unions traveled to New Delhi to apprise Minister for Commerce and Industries Nirmala Sitharaman of the plight of tea gardens workers in north Bengal. The group is fearful that when the plucking season ends in October, certain tea gardens would be abandoned or closed by owners making the situation worse for workers.

Source: The Economic Times, The Hindu, Calcutta Telegraph