Over 15,000 tea plantation workers in the Nilgiris and Coimbatore districts in Tamil Nadu are working without any protective gear in the estates during the lockdown period. The government, on request of the corporate players, has permitted the functioning of the manufacturing units even as the number of COVID-19 cases continue to rise. With 102 persons testing positive on April 3, the total number of cases in TN stands at 411. The workers, who have been toiling to ensure that production in the factories continue without interruption, have been denied any preventive measures including the supply of sanitisers.
Certain trade unions functioning in the districts, which are dependent on the managements, are forcing the workers to attend work. The management of these factories have reportedly received affidavits from the workers stating that they are working voluntarily.
YIELDING TO CORPORATE PRESSURE
The government of Tamil Nadu has announced some relief measures for the construction and auto workers registered with the welfare boards. But, more than 75,000 tea plantation workers, for whom no welfare board exists, have been left out from the ambit of relief measures.
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With major tea producing states, West Bengal and Assam refraining from permitting the industry from operating, Suresh, secretary of Nilgiris Tea Plantation Workers’ Union accused the government of yielding to the pressure of the corporate companies. “There are 11 big manufacturers in the Nilgiris district and their thirst for profit has driven them to operate. The government also has yielded to the pressure of the corporate manufacturers compromising on the safety of several thousand workers. The small planters are refrained from continuing the work. Also the workers won't get any relief measures from the government since there is no welfare board for tea plantation workers.” he said.
NO PREVENTIVE MEASURES FOR WORKERS
The corporate companies, taking advantage of the economic status of the workers, have reportedly forced them to carry out the regular work. Without any concerns for the hygiene and safety of the workers, the managements have reportedly issued a circular stating that the workers are responsible for their well being during the period and the management cannot be held responsible.
Arumugam, a third generation plantation worker from Valparai in Coimbatore district said, “I am not attending work after the lockdown. However, a good number of the workers are continuing their work after the companies have asked them to do so. But, the companies have not even provided water and sanitiser to the workers to wash their hands. When there is fear of a spread of the virus, the workers are being exploited for profit by the companies”.
FEAR OF LIFE AND JOB
The majority trade unions in Coimbatore depend largely on the managements for the memberships. The arrangement of deducting membership from the wages of the workers are the lifeline for the trade unions including that of the ruling and opposition parties in the state. The Anna ThozhilSanga Peravai of the ruling party, Labour Progressive Front of the opposition, All India Trade Union Congress, Indian National Trade Union Centre and Labour Liberation Front are part of this arrangement.
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“This arrangement forces the trade unions to follow the orders of the managements,” said Paramasivam, general secretary of Covai district Tea Plantation Workers and Staff Union. The managements had instructed these trade unions to ask the workers to report to duty as soon as they obtained the order to continue operations.
NO RELIEF FOR WORKERS
“The workers are afraid of losing their livelihoods as the companies have not come forward to pay the wages during lockdown as requested by the chief minister and the prime minister. The workers can't defy the orders of the trade union or the management as they can end up losing their jobs. This twin attack has forced the workers to work amid the threat of the virus spread,” added Paramasivam.
While the government has turned a blind eye to this blatant exploitation, the workers, with a daily wage of Rs 327 and the minimum wage settlement pending since 2017, are left with no option, but to work to feed themselves and their families.