More than one million people in North Bengal, who are directly or indirectly dependent on the tea-garden economy of the region, have been struggling with their livelihoods. Since the regime change in the state in 2011, the constant refusal of the West Bengal government to comply with the Minimum Wages Act and statutory labour regulations, even in the recent Tripartite Meets, have intensified the workers' plight.
While the price of everything rises, the tea garden labourers are struggling to make ends meet. Even starvation deaths have reportedly occurred due to the withdrawal of assistance to the workers of closed tea gardens. The erstwhile Left Front government started the assistance scheme in the state.
However, hunger and destitution related deaths of tea garden workers are not new and have been reported for close to a decade. But the situation seems to have reached a tipping point now.
"With a meagre wage of Rs 202, we have to manage everything, which is impossible in these times of inflation," said Pratap Kujur (55), a tea worker and an activist with the Chiakaman Majdoor Union of Mohor Gulmaa Tea Garden in the Terai region.
Issues Beside Low Wages
"Along with this (low wages), five more issues are plaguing us," said Kujur, continuing, "First among them is the lost childhood of our kids, who are now school dropouts due to this online system of education. The primary school students now play instead of studying while the senior students aged 18-19 years have permanently left the education system and have become tea workers. It is a huge loss for the tea workers' strive to get their sons and daughters educated."
Secondly, said Kujur, there was an urgent need for the Provident Fund commissioners to organise camps in the region as the documentation process for PF hinders the uneducated tea garden workers from opening the funds. Thirdly, he added that the tea gardens are now resorting to the online payment system, which is difficult to access for the tea workers. Around 41 tea gardens in the Terai region have started the method of online payment.
The fourth problem, according to Kujur is the ration card digitisation drive, which is far from being complete in the Terai tea gardens. Without digitised ration cards, the workers face problems getting their share of rice and wheat flour from the ration shops.
The tea garden workers are at the receiving end of lack of vaccination for Covid-19, and only 1,000 out of 7,000 residents of Mohor Gulma Tea Garden have been vaccinated with at least one dose so far. "The ratio of vaccination is the same everywhere in the tea garden belt," Kujur said, pointing this out as the fifth issue.
Unions Raise Their Problems with Govt
The tea workers' unions have placed before the Additional Labour Commissioner of West Bengal their demands for wage revision, faster vaccination, and the provision of ration and travel allowance, which the tea garden owners are trying to forego, among others. The meeting was held virtually on Wednesday.
Saman Pathak, the secretary of Chiakaman Majdoor Union, and Goutam Ghosh, the president of the union, were present throughout the 90-minute virtual meeting, which took place following the department minister's assurance that the authorities will consider the demands of the 37 tea workers' organisations before coming to any conclusion.
The unions have sought the concerned minister to raise their issues in the bipartite meeting scheduled between the Labour Minister and the tea garden owners.
The tea garden workers' organisations are demanding wage restructuring through three-year contracts, which so far has gone unheeded even though they sought government intervention.
The Last wage revision for the staff of the tea gardens had taken place in February 2015, and the contract expired on March 31, 2017. After this, there has not been any wage contract on behalf of the tea garden owners. In the meantime, there was some wage increment, which was meagre in amount and allegedly only on paper.
Going by the erstwhile contract, each staff of the tea gardens is losing Rs 6,118 (per month), sub-staff Rs 2,422 (per month), and tea garden workers are losing Rs 46 per day on account of ration.
Speaking to Newsclick, Saman Pathak said that there is a nine-rupee ration allowance in the Rs 202 wage of the tea garden workers. He claimed that the tea garden owners are saying that the allowance does not exist and trying to disown the ration component in the wages.
Healthcare and Vaccination
The tea garden workers of Dooars and Terai regions of West Bengal are currently facing a shortage of healthcare facilities amid the Covid-19 pandemic. With many tea gardens being closed due to the pandemic, there is a lack of health infrastructure, while those still open are seeing rising vaccine requirements.
Given this situation, the Joint Action Forum of Tea Workers had already urged Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman to release the proposed Rs 1,000 crores to improve tea workers' health standards across the country. The Forum is the tea workers' nodal body that spearheads agitations in the hills and plains of North Bengal.
Jia Ul Alam, Centre of Indian Trade Unions leader and convenor of the Joint Forum, told Newsclick that all the 29 unions in the area were adamant in fulfilling their demands even though the government representatives did not listen to them during the ongoing tripartite discussions.
The unions have been saying that the present government proposal of Rs 172 as the daily wage was not consistent with the rule of the land and that Rs 249 should be the minimum wage.
Unlike in Assam, the tea garden workers in North Bengal became united after the TMC government failed to fulfil the minimum wages demand.
The tea workers' struggle in 2018 was a path-breaker, which upped the intensity of the demand for Rs 249 daily wage as per the Basic Minimum Wages Act. It also raised the need for social security, including education, shelter, electricity and other necessities. Though not initially expected by the Joint Forum leadership, the movement saw tea workers from the hilly areas of Darjeeling districts join the strike call.
More than 450 big, small, and medium tea gardens are spread across the four districts in North Bengal and even in the tertiary areas of the Terai and Dooars in the neighbouring districts. In this background, forming a unified movement in North Bengal under the Joint Forum has aided the tea workers' struggle.