WEST BENGAL, India
A three-day strike last week by more than 400,000 tea workers from Darjeeling to the Dooars and Terai tea growing regions halted production at hundreds of tea gardens leading to a loss in volume and quality according to planters.
The region is “in no position to bear any further disruptions,” according to the Consultative Committee of Plantations Association (CCPA). The association said that growers in Darjeeling alone suffered an estimated $72 million in losses during a 105-day strike that began last June.
The region is under “severe financial stress” according to the CCPA release, as reported by INS. The impact of gate meetings and strikes thus far is slight on tea exported to the U.S. and Europe as most of the tea produced in the foothills below Darjeeling is consumed domestically or exported to the Middle East.
At issue is a question of a national minimum wages for agricultural workers (currently $3.39 per day). In January the West Bengal government implemented an interim hike of $.25 per day (INRs17.50) increasing the day rate from $1.92 to $2.17 (INRs132.50 to INRs150) effective January 1, 2018. Union leaders labeled the interim increase “miniscule” and are seeking an increase to $3.46 per day (INRs239) in addition to payment for electricity, basic foodstuffs, clothing, and education. Planters want calculations to include estate provided food, electricity, sanitation, fuel, education, medical, and social costs mandated for those living and working on tea plantations. Government leaders support an increase to $2.49 per day (INRs172).
The Aug. 6 meeting was the latest of 11 convened by the Minimum Wage Advisory Committee, the next is scheduled for Aug. 20. Since the matter was not resolved, workers ceased work the following day.
Prabir Bhattacharjee, secretary general of the Tea Association of India (ITA), told The Telegraph of Calcutta “the three-day strike was called by Joint Forum without any prior notice and at a time when production is at the peak has led to huge losses.” He estimated the disruption prevented the harvest of 3.23 million kilos, valued at $5.7 million (INRs40 crores). The Joint Forum represents 24 labor unions, excluding the six local Trinamul unions and the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha of Darjeeling.
Unless prices improve, and productivity increases the industry cannot sustainably implement further wage enhancements, according to the CCPA. “Strikes and gate meetings aggravate the situation further and make it extremely difficult for the industry to recover on the production front as well as in sustaining the expected quality of tea made and obligations of payments in future,” reads the release.
Workers held rallies and listened to activists. Anuradha Talwa, a state committee member of the Paschimbanga Khet Mazdoor Samiti said “The government has to take a stand to ensure they get a survival rate, $2.30 per day (INRs 159) is not a survival wage. It should be equal to the minimum wage in the agricultural sector, which is $3.39 (INRs 234) now. At least that much they should get. The industrial workers get much more, close to $4.34 (INRs 300). There should be parity in minimum wages for all these workers,” Talwar told The Indian Express.