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WB: Resentment Over CM’s Role in Declaring Interim Relief for Tea Workers

With the announcement of the interim relief, it is believed that, once again, the question of fixing a minimum wage will go to the back burner. The 15% increase is the lowest augmentation of wage seen by workers in recent times.
WB: Resentment Over CM’s Role in Declaring Interim Relief for Tea Workers

Kolkata: Resentment has been brewing amongst tea workers in north Bengal over Chief Minister Mamata Bannerjee’s unilateral decision of announcing an interim relief for tea workers with a 15% increase. The announcement has meant a climb-down for the tea workers of the state who had demanded Rs 295 to be their daily wage as against Rs 202 that they get presently.

With the announcement of the interim relief, it is believed that, once again, the question of fixing a minimum wage will go to the back burner. This is the sixth time that an interim relief has been announced by the State government, whereby the workers had been pressing for minimum wage to be enhanced. The 15% increase is the lowest augmentation of wage seen by workers in recent times.

Interestingly, for a tea worker in Kerala, the basic daily wage is Rs 380 coupled with other statutory benefits, resulting in a total daily wage of Rs 600.

Speaking to NewsClick, Ziaul Alam, who is the convenor of the Joint Forum of Tea Workers, said that the interim wage hike was mostly unwanted and that it had adversely affected the tripartite consultation process between the workers, employees and the government.

“When prices of all commodities are rising at a high rate, the Chief Minister is busy siding with tea planters and is announcing minimal amounts of interim relief. We have also requested her that in future she does not interfere and undermine the role of trade unions in the wage bargaining process of an industry,” Alam said.

The tea workers have had a long standing demand for just minimum wages. However, the State government is still unable to come to a conclusion regarding the minimum wage. On June 2, at Siliguri, workers, planters and the government had sat in a tripartite meeting where even the state labour directorate had opined that in the present circumstances the interim wage of tea garden workers should be between Rs 250-258.

As that meeting was inconclusive within the next 10 days, the labour minister was supposed to come and decide on the sixth interim relief amount for the tea workers. The next meeting was supposed to take place from June 14-16. But before that could happen, CM Banerjee unilaterally announced the 15% interim relief.

Earlier, the labour minister, Becharam Manna had announced that from January 1, the interim relief will be at the rate of Rs 295. With the CM’s announcement, the effective rise is of Rs 28 only.

Tea workers too are resenting this decision of the State government since it is not their prerogative to pay the workers but the onus is on the tea planters to pay the minimum wage. Pratap Kujur of Mohor Gulma tea garden questioned the rationale behind the wage hike. “Now we are not getting the statutory ration component in our wage which is Rs 26 according to the state food department as gardens' own rationing system does not work. But we are getting only Rs 9 as the ration component.This is the exploitation level of an average tea garden worker in North Bengal. Government is plainly siding with the owners,” he said.

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 meetings, has intensified the workers’ plight.

The workers are demanding cash components of Rs 295 from the state’s tea planters to merely sustain themselves. The tea garden workers’ organisations are also demanding wage restructuring through three-year contracts, which so far has gone unheeded even though the unions sought government intervention.

The last wage revision for the staff of the tea gardens took 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 took place only on paper.

Talking to NewsClick, Saman Pathak, president of Chia Kaman Mazdoor Union said, “The Chief Minister has forgotten that the Tea industry is not a government department where she can intervene according to her whims and put the interests of the workers to the backburner. When a trade union bargaining is happening then this sort of announcement is a kind of infringement in the bargaining process on behalf of the tea plantation owners.”

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, he reminded.

Speaking to NewsClick, Saman Pathak said that there is a Rs 9 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 are trying to disown the ration component in the wages.

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