Over the years, tea plantation dwellers in West Bengal have hesitantly accepted their fate – with the absence of minimum wages, no land rights and diminishing social protections.
The COVID-19-triggered nationwide lockdown, which came into force in March this year, not only compounded workers’ difficulties, but also managed to discourage participation in collective action against the prevailing work conditions in estate regions. However, tea workers’ unions disagree.
“There were restrictions on movement and demonstrations with the huge participation of workers were not easy to stage; tea planters were taking advantage of this,” Zia-ul Alam, convenor of the joint forum, a conglomeration of about 29 tea workers’ unions, told NewsClick.
According to him, estate owners have been passing the brunt of the lockdown to the already vulnerable estate workers, who were trying to battle COVID-19 on their own.
The workers’ bodies are now preparing to “strike back”, according to Abhijit Mazumdar, working president of the Terai Sangrami Cha Shramik Union – one of the constituents of the joint forum – with preparations underway on the ground.
“We are organising tea workers; memorandums have been submitted to the chief minister and the prime minister. If our demands are not fulfilled, demonstrations will be held at many places,” he said. Mazumdar added that the union is also considering a work-strike in the month of August.
Among the demands – pressed for by tea workers’ unions – the most urgent is the fixing of minimum wages for the lakhs of tea estate workers in the state.
Implementation of a minimum wage has been pending since 2015, when a wage advisory committee was established. The tripartite committee had submitted its report in December 2018. The ball is now in the Mamata Banerjee-led state government’s court, which is sitting over committee's suggestions.
As of now, the daily wage for a tea worker in West Bengal is Rs 176.
The demand to resolve the wage issue at the earliest attracted voices in the aftermath of the lockdown, when additional rations, in the form of relief, failed to reach the tea workers, especially in the Terai regions.
In March, the Centre had announced free distribution of five kgs of foodgrains per person and one kilo of pulses per household, for three months, to about 80 crore people covered under the National Food Security Act. The additional ration allocations has now been extended till November.
The extra food ration, “has not been disbursed in the Tea Estates of Siliguri Sub-division and 44,000 Tea garden workers’ families are in sheer distress and anguish till date (sic),” alleged Darjeeling District’s Cha Kaman Mazdoor Union, in a letter dated July 14, to Siliguri’s District Controller, Food and Supply Department. The union is backed by Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU).
Saman Pathak, working president of the mazdoor union, highlighted the urgency of extending such benefits to tea workers in the region while speaking to NewsClick.
“Usually, the workers do not have enough savings to buy enough rations for their family. It is so because the ration supply as part of their wages – which was supposed to be taken care of by the estate owner – has also been diminished over the years.”
The difficulties of most of the workers were further aggravated owing to the non-payment of wages for the lockdown period, Pathak said. “Advance payments were made only in some estates – with the condition that it would be adjusted in the wages in future,” he added.
On April 9, the West Bengal government had allowed the tea gardens to open, but with a truncated workforce. “Necessary protective equipments such as masks and gloves are still not being provided to tea workers,” alleged Mazumdar. “The extra cost of purchasing these items is further eschewing workers’ earnings,” he added.
Alam, convenor of the joint forum, told NewsClick that a “pre-strike notice” has already been served to state’s labour commissioner on July 3. “Further delay in meeting our demands will only force us to consider a strike more seriously,” he added.