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Bengal: Tea Garden Workers Launch Stir to Demand 20% Puja Season Bonus

Struggling to make ends meet due to rising prices of essentials, the Joint Forum of tea workers said they would intensify their agitation.
Tea Garden Workers

Kolkata:  Lakhs of tea garden workers have started an agitation in the Darjeeling Hills and the Terai and Dooars regions demanding a 20% bonus before the onset of the puja season in the state. Traditionally, in the state’s tea estates, bonus issues of the Terai and Dooars are discussed every year before the onset of the season, following which the bonus issues of the hill estates are settled.

On October 5, the first round of discussions on bonus payments with tea garden unions began in Kolkata. After three rounds of talks, tea garden owners were reportedly adamant on paying a bonus @15% of basic wages. Even tea gardens that are financially stable and have the ability to pay 20% bonus are thinking of paying only 15% bonus at a time when inflation is biting hard, said some union leaders.

Saman Pathak, former Rajya Sabha MP from Darjeeling, and leader of the Joint Forum of Tea Workers told NewsClick that the tea garden owners had shown “high-handedness” while discussing the bonus issue and their “exploitative outlook” was hurting tea workers before the festival season. “It is a question of the human dignity of the tea workers”, he added.

Meanwhile, unrest has begun in various tea gardens of Jalpaiguri and Alipurduar districts. In Alipurduar, the management of Dalgaon tea estate took a unilateral decision and has decided to pay 20% bonus to its employees.

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 (from the earlier Left Front to the Trinamool Congress now), 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, has worsened the workers’ plight. 

While the price of everything is rising, tea garden workers are struggling to make ends meet. Even starvation-related deaths have reportedly occurred due to the withdrawal of assistance to workers of closed tea gardens. Many recall that it was the erstwhile Left Front government that had started the assistance scheme in the state. 

However, hunger and poverty-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, say union leaders. 

Tea plantations in the region are spread over 97,280 hectares (240,400 acres). The region produces 226 million kilogrammes of tea, accounting for about a quarter of India's total tea crop. There are 154 gardens in the Dooars alone, out of 283 tea gardens in North Bengal that employ 3.5 lakh workers.

Tea cultivation in the Dooars was primarily pioneered and promoted by the British Colonial rulers, but a significant contribution was made by Indian entrepreneurs. While Goodricke and Duncan operate a majority of tea gardens in the Dooars. 

Prafulla Lakra from the Jalpaiguri Sadar Tea Workers Union, who is also the regional secretary of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), told NewsClick that the region's tea workers were being exploited.  “We depend on festival bonus payments for our sustenance. If the management thinks they can get away by paying us less bonus, then we will protest more intensely,” he added. 

"The tea industry is suffering from absenteeism. In Darjeeling district, where there is scope for 11 million kg of tea production, there is now production of 6.5 million kg of tea, because most male workers have gone out of the state to work as migrant workers in other states. Women now comprise over 80% of the tea workers," Lakra said.

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