The Joint Forum – a body comprising all the tea garden workers in West Bengal other than Trinamool Congress (TMC)-affiliated unions – began their three-day strike yesterday. Tea gardens across the country are in shambles, and the workers have a lot to agitate about; however, this time, the matter pertains to revising the minimum wage. As a usual practice, the wages of tea garden workers are revised in three-year intervals. However, in 2014, the unions formed the Joint Forum and demanded that the Minimum Wages Act be made applicable to tea garden workers.
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The present phase of the agitation for a hike started from July 2. The government of West Bengal had first proposed raising the minimum wage by Rs. 17.50 to bringing the minimum wage to Rs. 150. The government also introduced an interim payment of compensation for procuring food grains at a rate of Rs. 9 per day. This did not go down well with the unions, who then declared a strike from July 23 to July 25. The first meeting was scheduled for July 17 to discuss the revised minimum wage. Following the meeting, the Joint Forum was persuaded to revoke its strike call. They were assured that on July 30, they would be able to meet with West Bengal Labour Minister, Moloy Ghatak to discuss the issue.
The meeting was however cancelled and was subsequently rescheduled for August 6. According to those present, the labour minister was absent for the meeting. What made his absence significant was that he is the chairperson of the Wage Advisory Committee – the committee created to review the minimum wages. In his place, the principal secretary conducted the meeting.
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At the meeting, based on a calculation of 2,700 calories per person for a family of three, Rs. 172 per day was proposed as a minimum wage. This wage did not take into account 'fringe benefits' such as clothing, housing, medical facilities and other such necessities. When Rs. 172 was proposed as the new minimum wage – with an increase of Rs. 13 – the Joint Forum made a counter proposal of Rs. 239 – with an increase of Rs. 67. The labour commissioner, however, concluded the meeting and set August 20 as the date on which the meeting will resume. The forum demanded instead that the meeting should continue until the matter is decided. The government and the tea garden managements' representatives left the meeting, prompting the Joint Forum to agitate in front of the building. The government's representatives later returned to assure the agitating members that another meeting would be convened on the next day.
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On Tuesday, the three day 'token' strike began in the Terai and Duars over minimum wages. However, even a single day of strike can have massive repercussions for the tea industry, as it is the peak production time at present. Last year, the tea gardens in Darjeeling suffered heavy losses due to the Gorkhaland agitation, which spanned over three months which began in May, and ended in September. Therefore, the management needs to take this strike seriously in case it may extend longer than three days and continue through the production season.
In a press conference in Darjeeling, the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha's union, the Darjeeling Terai Duars Plantation Labour Union (DTDPLU) came up with a figure of Rs. 243 as the value of the 'fringe benefits'. This, despite excluding four items: housing, medical facilities, maternity leave and rations. The DTDPLU is not a part of the Joint Forum, but it has agreed to work alongside the forum on the minimum wage issue.
What perhaps bolsters the unions is that the proposed minimum wage in Assam is Rs. 351 per day. This figure is about twice what was proposed by the West Bengal labour commissioner in meeting on August 6. This makes it strange that the amount demanded by the forum – Rs. 259 per day – was not considered.