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Struggle for Minimum Wages

The ongoing disturbances in the Darjeeling hills have made headlines. Bimal Gurung’s effort to revive the Gorkhaland issue in order to recover lost ground has not been much of a success, and there are reasons to belive that the corrupt practices of his outfit in the GTA has led to a severe erosion of his mass base. It is also clear that his entire move was contemplated with the green signal of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) which is hell bent on promoting the agenda of Hindu, Hindi, Hindusthan in the Darjeeling hills.Mamata Banerjee on the other hand has brushed aside the issue of the Gorkha identity altogether and in order to make this denial effective, she has been playing this or that card that suits her purpose, the Lepcha card being one example. The Gorkha people, it seems, need a new leadership that is really democratic and does not discriminate between the Gorkhas and the Lepchas, while holding high the Gorkha identity.

What is, however, not less important, as far as the situation in North Bengal is concerned, is the latest successful strike for minimum wages by workers. This strike has received far less publicity than it deserves. After an earlier strike joined by all the trade unions except the INTTUC, a wage board was constituted. The TMC government instituted the PDS in the tea belt, a move that helped it win the elections, but it went virtullay against the enforcement of the minimum wages. The CPI(M) and the CITU, throughout their period of hegemony, shouted dowm the demand for minimum wages on queer grounds and as they sensed their hegemony gradually breaking down, they in order to protect their lost position, woke up to the need for minimun wages (that was on the eve of the 2011 polls), and actively participated in the strike that followed the polls. They have done so this time too. The earlier strike could not realise the demand for minimum wage, but succeeded in raising the exising level of wages.

Before the last assembly polls, a Wage Board was constituted, seemingly in response to the strike, but the present West Bengal government shamefully dilly-dallied over conducting the business of the Board. Six meetings of the Wage Board have been held so far but no solution has been reached. The reason is the frantic opposition of garden owners and the attitude of the government that does not have the courage to antagonise the owners. The Mamata Banerjee government declared the present strike illegal and let loose the police force on the striking workers as well as on the people who came out in support of the workers’ demand. She found it convenient to forget that she had failed to give the workers their due through legal means.

The Kerala tea workers are already getting a statutory minimum wage that is three times the wages in West Bengal. Then just consider the extent of deprivation the workers of North Bengal have been suffering from.

Tea garden workers have also other problems like linguistic discrimination— they do not have the opportuity to be taught in their mother tongues. All these problems must be addressed in future struggles.

Frontier
Vol. 49, No.51, Jun 25 - Jul 1, 2017