WEST BENGAL, India – Garden workers are again pressing for a wage hike in India which often leads to showdowns that disrupt supplies. Currently workers earn INRs 95 ($1.57 a day) for plucking 42 kilos of tea. They are asking for INRs 322 ($5.18) under a three-year agreement that expires April 1. India requires garden owners to provide workers with shelter, subsidized grains for their table, medical care and education for their children in addition to a daily wage.
Several unions asked to meet with representatives of garden owners. Unions include the Darjeeling Terai Dooars Plantation Labour Union, which is affiliated to the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, and the Progressive Tea Workers Union of the Akhil Bharatiya Adivasi Vikas Parishad. These and several smaller unions announced they had formed a coalition Dec. 27 and met with West Bengal Labour Minister Purnendu Bose in Calcutta on Jan. 7, according to reports in the The (Calcutta) Telegraph. The coalition is called the United Tea Workers Front (UTWF). Since the last negotiations the Supreme Court of India has issued wage guidelines and the 15th Indian Labour Conference (ILC) recommended a base of INRs 322 per day.
The UTWF asked Purnendu to initiate talks prior to the expiration of the existing work agreement. The union is seeking wages sufficient “for living a healthy life.”
Gardens in the Terai are situated south of the outer foothills of the Himalaya and north of the Brahmaputra Valley and its tributaries. Terai is the Hindi word for foothills. It is home to 10.3 million people. The tea growing region is crossed by the Ganges and Yamuna and Karnali and hundreds of smaller rivers. The Dooars, which means “door” in Assamese are the floodplains of the eastern Himalayas. The Dooars span 3,400 square miles.
A representative of the Terai Indian Planters’ Association, whose members have gardens in the Terai, told the newspaper that growers are also eager to begin talks but are waiting for state officials to set a date and location. Growers point out that wages have increased 34% since 2011.
Coalition spokesman Anuradha Talwar told the newspaper “we want the state government to immediately initiate talks on the revision of pay for the next three years. Only if the talks are launched soon, the laborers can start receiving wages at higher rates from April 1 and it can be ensured that there are no arrears. There were instances of workers being deprived of new wages from the date of the (earlier) revision because of delay in reaching an agreement.”
Workers want talks held in Darjeeling for unions representing gardens in that region with additional talks in Siliguri for workers in the Terai and Dooars instead of Calcutta.
Other unions in the coalition include Terai Dooars Progressive Plantation Workers Union, West Bengal Tea Labour Union (which is affiliated to the CPI-ML), Paschimbanga Khet Mazdoor Samiti and New Trade Union Initiative. The Citu and Intuc and RSP Union are not part of the group, nor are the two Trinamul tea unions, but these represent relatively few of the region’s several hundred thousand tea workers.