Nearly 43,000 Darjeeling tea workers from West Bengal are staring at a bleak future. The reason being refusal of the hills tea gardens’ management to pay the bonus to the workers this year. On Monday, the tripartite meeting held in Kolkata between the representatives of both, Darjeeling Tea Association (DTA) and the Joint Forum of tea workers’ unions, failed in breaking the deadlock over the bonus issue. Owing to this, the union representatives staged a walkout, threatening to intensify the ongoing struggle.
The meeting, being latest of all, was convened by West Bengal’s labour minister in-charge himself. The issue at hand is the different bonuses that have been proposed. The management is adamant on paying 15% bonus, which is on par with the previous year’s bonus, while the unions have been demanding 20%.
“The production in 2018 was almost double when compared with 2017’s production,” said Saman Pathak, member of the Joint Forum, who was present at the meeting, “even then the management is not willing to pay bonuses to the tea workers as demanded by the unions.”
As the festive season in the state is around the corner, and with talks failing to yield any fruitful result, the Joint Forum, which is an umbrella body of about 30 tea workers’ union, has now decided to press for their demands through gate meetings and slowing down the tea production. A meeting is scheduled on October 2 to decide the future course of action.
The history of the tea industry in Bengal is of more than 150 years. With changes in the political formations in the region, one would hope for tea workers—majorly women—to also be able to acquire a livelihood. However, for well over 4.5 lakhs tea workers in West Bengal, that remains a pipe dream.
“A tea worker in West Bengal still earns as low as ₹ 176/day,” Abhijit Mazumdar, working president of the Terai Sangrami Cha Shramik Union, told NewsClick. The union is one of the constituents of the Joint Forum.
In addition to this, it is the dishonouring of the provisions of the Plantation Labour Act by the tea estates owners that have worsened the daily economics of the tea labourers. Under the act, the tea producers are mandated to provide free housing, free medical facility and education to the workers.
“The social benefits mostly exists only on paper,” said Mazumdar, adding that the situation is no better for the tea labourers in the neighbouring states such as Assam where workers await wage revision – from Rs 167/day to Rs 351/day – despite Bharatiya Janata Party’s poll promise. The party emerged victorious in the recently held elections.
“Be it non-consideration of ‘fringe benefits’, no wage revision, or absence of provision of land patta to landless tea garden, according to Pathak, the list of grievances is unending. However, right now the focus is to win bonus for the Darjeeling tea workers.
The Darjeeling Tea Association, representing 87 tea garden owners, on the other hand, is of that the financial condition of the owners does not allow for 20% bonuses.
Complaining that the state government and the Tea board has not done much for the Darjeeling Tea Industry, a Millennium Post report quotes Sandeep Mukherjee, Principal Advisor to DTA as saying, “around 50% workers migrated during this period [2017 political strike] the brunt of which is being felt by the gardens till date. There is a manpower shortage. Plucking cannot be held in 25% of the land under tea owing to lack of workforce.”
However, Mazumdar rejected this line of thought by saying that the production in 2017 was compensated through double production the next year. The tea workers received 15% in 2018; so, they must be paid with increased bonuses for the labour done in the year 2018, he added. Incidentally, the tea workers of Terai and Dooars have been awarded with 18.5% of bonus this year. Terai, Dooars and Darjeeling form the three perennial tea production centres in the West Bengal state.
“The tea pluckers [of Darjeeling] sing of the tiny saplings which bend in the wind as they work,” read the description of the Darjeeling tea plantation on the website of Tea Board of India. As idyllic as it can get, the description, however, is far from the reality of the tea workers in Darjeeling who have been lifting up their voices, demanding fair pay for their work.