Dibrugarh, Feb. 19: In a move which can spark fresh trouble in Assam's beleaguered tea industry, the Indian Tea Association (ITA) today said it wanted all wage hikes frozen till the industry achieves a 'turnaround'.
The proposal for a moratorium on wage revision was put forward at the 115th annual general meeting of the Assam branch of the ITA (Abita) at the district Planters' Club here.
Outgoing Abita chairman Ranjeet Kumar Baruah said the cost of production per kg of tea has gone up to a band of Rs 65 to Rs 75 as against the average realisation of Rs 64.41.
'Fifty per cent of the earnings account for the labour component, that is, wages and other social responsibilities. So, it is high time the trade unions understand the reality of the crisis being faced by the industry for the past six years and become more realistic in their demands for a wage hike,' Baruah argued.
Abita's move has come a few days after the owner of a tea garden in Golaghat district was set ablaze and killed by labourers over a wage dispute.
Labour and employees' unions were up in arms as soon as Abita's stand became known, saying they will not tolerate it if the proposal is implemented. The earlier wage revision, for a period of three years, lapsed on March 31, 2003. But the managements of the tea gardens have been putting off a fresh agreement.
Reading out the speech of ITA chairman C.K. Dhanuka ' who could not attend the meeting ' ITA secretary-general Manojit Dasgupta said trade unions should adopt a more rational approach while holding negotiations with the Consultative Committee of Plantation Associations.
'However, we will continue to hold a dialogue with the trade unions and we will have to find a way out of the impasse. There is also a need to place greater stress on improving the quality of Indian tea. It is a matter of great regret that market sources have said that the Indian tea has earned the dubious distinction of being of very poor quality. This will have to be addressed immediately,' Dasgupta said.
Dasgupta also said the ITA had come up with a proposal for enhancing the subsidy for replacing bushes that are more than 40 years old. The Tea Board has taken this up with the commerce and industry ministry, he added.
At present, the subsidy provided by the government on the cost of replacing bushes is 25 per cent. The ITA wants it hiked to 40 per cent. The ITA itself has admitted that 47 per cent of the tea bushes in the country are over 40 years old.
The Abita chairman also said the state's tea production during the year was recorded at 437 million kg, which is 16 million kg lower than last year. 'However, the average price realisation is higher at Rs 64.41 as against Rs 55.46 last year. In the records of the Guwahati Tea Auction Centre, it is Rs 68.74. But this marginal increase in price realisation has been offset by a lower crop,' Baruah explained.