Struggle For Minimum Wages

Plight of Tea Garden Workers

Anirban Biswas

On 13 October 2014, the tea gardens of North Bengal witnessed an event that was historic in one sense; for the first time in their history there was an almost total cease-work, the demand being a minimum wage for tea workers. A leading English, daily quoted the Jalpaiguri district secretary of the CITU as saying, ‘‘Majority of the tea estates were closed today as workers abstained from their duties and took part in gate meetings in gardens. They have also marched to the nearest BDO office, police station or labour department office and submitted memoranda to the Prime Minister and the chief minister on the wage demand." The strike was opposed by the trade unions of the Trinamul Congress. The relative positions of the CITU and the INTTUC, however, present an ironic turn of wheel, an understanding of which requires a brief review of the recent past. Throughout the period of Left Front rule, the CPI(M) and RSP-led trade unions have opposed the demand for minimum wages tooth and nail. Their argument was that since wages are settled by tripartite agreements, there was no need for a minimum wages mechanism as if declaration of a minimum wage would close the door for such negotiations. During the period from 2008-11, the negotiated daily wage was only Rs 67 in cash. Even if the fringe benefits were included, the wage would be about Rs 85, which was far short of the official minimum wages in West Bengal, and also far less than the wages received by workers in other major tea-growing states, e.g. Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Karnataka. The picture in Assam is a bit complicated, because despite government notification, workers are deprived of the minimum wages owing to a nefarious deal between the Congress-led unions and the planters. Recently, a leader of the NTUI (New Trade Union Initiative) has told this correspondent that they were going to take this matter to the court. Those who are interested in the condition of workers in the tea industry, which fetches huge quantities of foreign exchange, may be reminded that during 2003-04, about 800 workers died owing to persistent lack of food and consequent malnutrition. This was the finding of a detailed survey conducted by a People's Tribunal headed by a retired judge of the Bombay High Court and consisting of a number of other important persons. It is shocking and intriguing that the ruling government denied the events of death due to hunger and malnutrition. Doctors too, following the dictates of the ruling party and unscrupulous trade union leaders, usually wrrote 'cardio-respiratory failure' as the cause of death. It is worth quoting from an article written by an experienced and competent observer and published in this weekly : "One doctor who had dared to write in the death register that 'cardio-resipiratory failure due to acute malnutrition' was the cause of death was chased out of the garden by the trade union goondas of the ruling parties when a reporter from Tehelka went to see him about his entries." (Vaskar Nandy, Bengali Chauvinism and Ethnic Tangle in North Bengal, January 13-19, 2014). In 2004, the Supreme Court ordered the state government to supply foodgrains to the hungry workers at drastically reduced prices, guarantee public works for at least 15 days a month, provide free medical care at the gardens, pay small doles to unemployed workers etc. The state government started implementing it after as long as three years and meanwhile, the number of deaths due to malnutrition rose. It is noteworthy that a Supreme Court order was required to make the state government recognize the seriousness of the problem, and that it procrastinated for a long period in implementing the order.

All these factors led to a decline in the influence of the so-called left, and finally their hegemony, backed by muscle power, could no longer be maintained. The demand for a minimum wage was simmering and the CPI(ML)-led unions consistently advocated the case for a minimum wage. But their influence was limited. In the immediate aftermath of the TMC victory in the assembly polls, there was a pay rise from Rs 67 per day to Rs 95 per day. But it was still less than the agricultural minimum wages even after taking into account the wage in kind, alternatively called the fringe benefits. Yet this enabled the Trinamul Congress to increase its influence, which proved important in the Lok Sabha polls this year. En passant, it may be mentioned that during the polls, unlike in central Bengal and the Paschimanchal region, the polls were relatively peaceful in North Bengal, with practically no report of rigging of booth capture. The INTTUC, the trade union front of the Trinamul Congress, however, scrupulously refrained from raising the demand for a minimum wage i.e. a basic wage with variable dearness allowance.

It is necessary to note briefly the role of the Adivasi Vikas Parishad in this regard. It rose into prominence by fighting the Gorkha demand for the inclusion of Dooars and Terai regions within the territorial limits, patently an unjustified and expansionist demand.

The simmering demand for the declaration of a minimum wage got a fillip when the Adivasi Vikas Parishad, after its anti-Gorkha agitation, which, in reaction to Gorkha expansionism, fomented serious communal tension, subsided, turned its attention to the issue of minimum wage, which helped popularize the issue among the adivasis and forced even the CPI(M) and its trade union wing, the CITU, to wake up to this issue seriously. The current leadership of the INTTUC, although in favour of a pay rise, is silent on the issue of mininum wage. That is why they did not support the cease-work of 13 October, which was called by the United Forum of Tea Workers, which consists of 23 trade unions. The cease-work was almost total, and reportedly local INTTUC activists too participated in it in defiance of the wishes of their leaders. This is possibly the beginning of the end of the INTTUC hegemony in the tea gardens. To make matters worse for them, the union minister of state for commerce and industry has supported the demand (The Telegraph, 14 October), whatever her overt or covert political motive. The struggle continues, although, given the past records of some of the organizations represented in this forum, there is the possibility of betrayal at every turn of events. Yet it is an important struggle, because the agenda is to break the age-old super-exploitation of workers by the planters.

Vol. 47, No. 20, Nov 23 - 29, 2014