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WB: Workers' Wages Due, 5 Tea Estates in Alipurduar ‘Abruptly Shuttered’ Before Diwali

Fearing an agitation over bonus, the owners put up a notice on halting work in 5 tea gardens, affecting 6,000 permanent workers and 3,000 temporary workers.

Kolkata: Ahead of the Diwali festival, five tea gardens were suddenly closed in Alipurduar amid workers' dissatisfaction with wages. As a result, about 9,000 permanent and temporary workers and their families face a dark Diwali this year.

The workers are angry and upset and have demanded that the administration should open the tea gardens immediately.

Labour leader Bikash Mahali told People's Reporter that “the condition of tea workers has deteriorated since the current Central or state government came to power. Both the governments are not doing anything on the issue of social security of the workers, as compared to the erstwhile Left Front government. Today's plantation owners pay nothing but wages. They do not deposit provident fund money. Many workers have not received their gratuity even after years of retirement.”

Demanding that pending wages be paid, Mahali said: “Since the next three months are dry, the owners are closing the garden unfairly so that they don’t have to pay salaries. Closed plantation workers are leaving the state for other states in search of work. We are fighting against it.”

Another tea garden labour leader Bidyut Gun said “the union had discussed the opening of the garden with the labour department. The Joint Labour Commissioner said the tripartite meeting will be called before Diwali. However, the possibility of having a representative of the owner in that meeting is low, the Joint Labour Commissioner informed us.”

He said, “If the representative of the owner does not come to the tripartite meeting, no solution will be found. However, on behalf of the workers, we will attend the Labour Department meeting,”

Vikas Mohali, a tea garden worker, said that owners had stopped work in five gardens, including Kalchini. As a result, at least 6,000 permanent workers and 3,000 temporary workers had been hit.

He said that the gardens are closed for leaf picking from November to the first week of March. In that period, only the work of garden maintenance is done. If the garden is open, the owners would have to pay wages. So, they have decided to close the gardens. However, they promised to open the garden again at the meeting of the Labour Department in March.

Mohali said that during the Left Front government, the Labour Department took steps to protect the interests of garden workers. “Now, the opposite is happening. Garden workers are being cheated,” he added.

Meanwhile, no arrangement has been made by the state administration for ensuring some relief to workers in the closed gardens. Workers of Kalchini, Dalsingpara, Raimatang, Ramjhora, and Dalmor plantations are now moving out as temporary labourers in nearby plantations, said labour union sources.  Some are trying to make ends meet by working as construction workers in nearby villages.

Puja Kharia, atea garden workers, said, "The days of starvation and half-starvation are coming again.Workers in the closed gardens rely on vegetables and flowers picked from the surrounding bushes. That is how they fill their stomachs. The little rice and flour in the ration do not last for a whole month”.

Dipak Baraik said there were six members in his family. “Everyone depends on my earnings. With earnings stopped, there is not enough for food, for children's education."

The workers were upset that neither the Trinamool government in the state nor the Bharatiya Janata Party at the Centre care about the opening of closed gardens, and are indulging in blame games. Union Minister John Barla, who represents Alipurduar in the Lok Sabha, has been firing a barrage of blames at the state government’s door, while TMC leaders say they have reported the problem to state Labour Minister Malay Ghatak.

When asked, Alipurduar District Magistrate R. Bimala said the district administration was trying to provide rice and relief to the workers of the closed tea gardens.

Without paying one month's wages to 2003 permanent workers of the Kalchini tea plantation, the authorities just left after hanging a notice of suspension of work, said workers.

At a time when the entire state is celebrating the festival season, darkness has descended on three tea gardens of Dooars. The owners have locked up two tea gardens in Madarihat and Kalchini in Alipurduar for two consecutive days. It is alleged that after workers of the Mujnai tea plantation in Madarihat demanded a 20% Durga Puja bonus, the owners ran away after locking the garden. As a result, 1,000 workers of the Mujnai tea plantation are jobless.

The Raimatang tea plantation in Kalchini block was closed, affecting about 1,200 workers. As these two tea estates in the district were shut down within 24 hours of each other, the workers went into panic. The workers claim that despite being angry about the bonus, they did not stop work. Yet, without any discussion, the authorities closed the gardens without any notice.

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