Working conditions at several of India’s tea gardens are “a matter of grave concern” according to Nirmala Sitharaman, India’s Minister of State for Commerce and Industries.
Sitharaman, after touring troubled gardens in Jalpaiguri for the second time in eight months, is pressing for an increase in the minimum wage paid workers. Garden owners pay a lower wage than the national minimum based on the Plantations Labor Act which mandates that plantations pay medical, educational and housing. Unfortunately no firm standards are named in the 1950s Act, an omission that allows some garden owners to provide minimal services.
“The proposal made in the meeting was that along with INRs. 122.50 ($1.84) a fringe benefit of INRs.109 ($1.63) will be added and the minimum daily wages will be fixed near INRs. 250,” a senior political leader present at the meeting told The Hindu last week. The current minimum varies by region from a low of INRs 115 ($1.72 per day).
A majority of the workers accepted the government’s offer for a minimum wage of about Rs. 250 ($3.75 per day), according to the report.
None of the 4,000 workers at the Birpara tea estate have been paid in four months and 66 have died, some malnourished. Nearby Bundapani tea estate, which is also owned by Duncans Group Industries, has been abandoned three years. The firm recently closed Bagrakote Tea Garden in Jalpaiguri. Sitharaman met with G.P. Goenka, chairman of the Duncans Group, which owns a majority of the region’s abandoned gardens.
West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee initially brought the matter to the attention of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, according to the Times of India. According to Banerjee there are 12 closed gardens and another 22 abandoned or non-functional tea gardens in the region. In the past few years the government has taken over five failed gardens and auctioned them to new management.
India secretary of Hind Mazdur Sabha Sam R. Roy told the newspaper, “People are dying of malnourishment and the minister says they had no such news. Had the situation not been grim, do you think the CM (chief minister) would have written to the Centre about the tea industry?”
Sitharaman later met with stakeholders in closed session and will now begin work on a report for the administration and legislators.