Minimum Wages

Tea Labour and Tripartite Agreement

Vaskar Nandy

On 21 March 2015, a new tripartite agreement was signed in the West Bengal tea plantation industry to cover the period between 1 April 2014 and 31 March 2017, with a Joint Forum of Tea Workers. The negotiations for this agreement started before the date on which the last agreement was to expire, viz, 31 March 2014, but agreement was reached after nine rounds of discussions just short of one year into the period for this year's agreement.

The cash wage at the last year of the previous agreement was 95 rupees for the plains districts and 90 rupees for the Darjeeling hills and they continued into the first year of the present agreement. The present agreement stipulates that this 5 rupee difference between the hills and the plains will be neutralised and the hills wages will henceforth be at par with the plains.

The cash wage structure of the present agreement is as follows :
1)    For the first year, i.e, 1 April 2014 to 31 March 2015, the daily cash wage will be 112.50 rupees;
2)   For the next year, it will be 122.50 rupees per day;
3)   For the last year, i.e. it will be 132.50 rupees.

This wage is treated as a cash wage because, true to the tea industry's history of semi-slave, indentured labour practices, the wage comes in cash and in kind. This "in kind" consists of a paltry amount of subsidised grains (not sufficient to even feed a child what it needs for the period of allotment), some fuel for cooking sufficient to last 6 or 7 months, and 400 grams of 'made tea' per month from the plantation. In the shameless ways and traditions of the planters, they claim that the subsidies for this "in kind" wages cost them 18 rupees per daily wage packet. The planters get the grains and the firewood at subsidised rates, as per an infamous 2006 government order passed by the Left Front government, that takes part of the burden of paying the in-kind wages away from the planters and places it firmly on the taxpayers' shoulders.

For the first year of the present agreement, of which only a few days were left, in addition to the workers' wages, there will be arrears of between 4 and 5 thousand rupees for each worker that will be paid out in three equal instalments during this year. Of course a few plantations, less than ten, are already demanding to pay the arrears in 6 instalments over two years. The workers in those plantations are opposing that arrangement quite vigorously and are being supported by all the unions of the joint forum of unions.

In 2005, in spite of a memorable month-long strike to force the reluctant planters to the negotiating table, the Left government and the planters roundly defeated the workers at the negotiations and rammed through productivity norms and a paltry increase of wages over the next three years. During the greater part of the year, the produciivity norm (theka) was to deliver 25 kilos of green leaf for a 8-hour workday. For the rest of the year, in the leaner season for leaves, the theka was lowered. The problem with this productivity norm was that production does not depend solely on the worker but largely on the planters who do not uproot old bushes without productive capacity and spend money on good husbandry. Among the many issues with which future struggles will turn is this issue of productivity, especially when very scant young leaves are ordered to be plucked in order to get better quality and fetch higher prices.

This productivity norm came with incentives and disincentives, exempting the old and infirm, pregnant women, etc to a certain extent. Wage cuts would take place for shortfalls from the theka at the rate of 1 rupee per kilo up to 6 kilos and 1.50 rupees for above 6 kilos. Shortfalls on one day could be made up on another day of the week so that the theka was judged essentially by the week. The incentive was the mirror opposite of this, 1 rupee and 1.50 rupees at the benchmark of 6 kilos. The unions have always opposed this system, but the new agreement has made some progress by keeping the disincentive system as it is and enhancing the incentive to 3 rupees up to 6 kilos and 3.50 rupees above that.

The wage increases in this agreement and in the previous one have been higher than any achieved during the dark days of Left Front rule. That's not saying much, because these wages are guarantors of a life near enough to starvation and actual severe malnutrition. There is no way one can be satisfied with such wages, especially when planters in Kerala tea gardens who, as compared to West Bengal, on an average produce lower value teas, pay double our wages. The secret of this lies in the mode of wage fixation.

The government of Kerala has for decades notified a statutory minimum wage. This is as it should be, because all states are bound by the Minimum Wages Act (1948) to notify minimum wages for all scheduled employment, including tea, in their domain. Any tripartite or bipartite negotiation there begins at the bench mark of the minimum wage. West Bengal tea workers do not have such a bench mark. They are saddled with tripartite negotiations without any minimum wage notification. It is said that such negotiations without a minimum wage benchmark yielded fair results for a while, somewhat justifying the tripartite agreement to keep tea plantations suspended from the schedule for minimum wages. This was a major blunder on the part of the tea unions that should make it mandatory for us to make a full self-criticism. Minimum wage is not necessarily one that has to be accepted by the workers. They can always bargain for more according to circumstances, at both bipartite and tripartite levels. There is no reason why the benchmark has to go at all.

Considering the absolute necessity for this benchmark, the Coordination Committee of Tea Workers' Unions, a body functioning for decades consisting of unions of diverse politics such as INTUC, CITU, UTUC, AITUC, NTUI and several others, decided :
1)    that they would not sign any agreement without a notification for constituting a statutory Minimum Wage Board that would give its report as soon as possible;
2)   that whatever wage was settled, it would lapse as soon as a minimum wage is declared; and,
3)   that all unions outside the coordination committee, especially the unions in the hills of Darjeeling, the two unions linked to the Adivasi Vikas Parishad in the plains, the Defence Committee for Plantation Workers' Rights and unions belonging to UTUC-Lenin Sarani and AICCTU, would be appealed to for joining a forum of all tea workers to struggle for a minimum wage.

Accordingly, the Coordination Committee concentrated its efforts on building unity of all workens and hence their trade unions ultimately united all tea workers except a very marginal union in the Joint Forum of Tea Workers. This work was not easy. There was a concerted external effort to form an ethnic coalition of the Adivasis and the Gorkhas and to organise them in a platform called the United Tea Workers' Forum (UTWF) in opposition to the unity efforts of the Coordination Committee. The larger of the two unions linked to the Adivasi VIkas Parishad did not join this forum. The convenor of this forum along with its key activists did not belong to any tea trade union and were not involved in any tea union activity.

The UTWF followed the usual norms to calculate what a minimum wage should be and focussed on the premise that any sum short of it would mean starvation for the plantation workers. There is no doubt that the wages of the workers in the plantations in West Bengal are starvation wages and continue to be so even after the new agreement given the balance of force between the plantation owners and the workers with the government clearly on the side of the employers. However, starvation death in the tea plantations has unfortunately, in an extremely vulgar way, become a calling card for many foreign funded (mostly US funds) NGOs and the UTWF clearly was promoted by individuals with this in mind. But the real purpose of the formation of the UTWF, such attempts in the past and the present efforts of certain individuals and unions to crowd source against the new agreement is to keep the workers ethnically divided in an objective condition of intense class struggle. At several junctures, these individuals have made parallel efforts to open a line of dialogue with the Chief Minister and her other ministers in order to strike a deal with the government and the employers in complete disregard of the demands of the workers and their unions on the ground. The members of the UTWF were misled on several occasions with the assurance that Mamata Banerjee would concede their demands. But alas there was no sound from Mamata Banerjee, the TMC and the government, then or ever after. This effort to divide the working class along ethnic lines was a colossal failure.

In the meantime the relentless efforts of the Joint Forum began yielding results. Soon both the Adivasi unions and the Gorkhas became a part of the forum. That meant that all tea workers, except the three small TMC unions, busy squabbling among themselves and refusing to unite in spite of diktats from above. This was class unity trumping a heinous conspiracy to divide the workers ethnically.

During the previous wage negotiations, the Gorkhas went their own way abandoning their class fraters of the plains. The result was not very pleasant for them: they ended up negotiating a 90 rupee wage whereas the plains workers got 95 rupees. The present agreement, as we have stated, repairs that differential by the display of strong class solidarity.

Having failed to divide the workers and disrupt the negotiations, these individuals have now resorted to efforts to crowd source opinion from certain sections of the trade union movement based on misinformation and to strike the joint forum, justly or unjustly, to break the Joint Forum by fomenting dissatisfaction with the agreement. Alas, this too is headed towards another colossal failure.

The workers are in a celebratory mood. They know that the bench mark of a statutory minimum wage takes them forward to some notion of decent work. They also know that the wage hike this time has been higher than any during the many previous negotiations. It is true that it is nowhere near the wage that the UTWF had proposed as the minimum, but the workers are well aware that floating such numbers is a mere publicity game. The gain is to have a minimum wage that is statutorily enforceable. To get that one, workers would have to launch the next round of intensified struggle to force the government to follow the legal procedures laid down by laws, Supreme Court judgements and the 15th Indian Labour Conference (ILC) norms. That's just what this agreement has achieved. The workers understand that.

Throughout the nine rounds of negotiations, they have patiently backed the joint forum. It was not any passive patience. They participated in numerous meetings and conventions, large and local. They marched over the length and breadth of the tea country in numbers; they struck work partially on numerous occasions; they sat in dharnas before the administration; they fasted everywhere; and, then they went on strike on three consecutive days, the last of which was a bandh in the tea districts when the general public came out in spontaneous support of the tea worker. The lessons of such practices cannot be erased by individuals strutting around the globe funded by foreign agencies to promote themselves at the expense of people's misery.

The sustained, one year long, struggle by the tea workers in solidarity among themselves and the leadership of the joint forum, is historical. Let no NGO or those who chew the bones thrown at them from the table try to defeat the tea workers by their heinous stratagems.

The real struggle, the struggle against the planters and the labour directorate, is beginning now. The joint forum has made it a rule that those of us who are on the wage board, must report to the general body of the forum immediately after a meeting of the board in order to correct course or mark out our course. Whenever the opponents of the workers try diversions, time-killing or any other obstacle to our quick arrival at a statutory minimum wage, the workers are ready to strike hard at our enemies. The days of deception and chicanery are over. ooo

[The writer is President, Paschim Banga Cha Bagan Sramik Karmachani Union]

Vol. 47, No. 44, May 10 - 16, 2015