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Tea laws set for change, workers fearful

Siliguri, April 8: The formation of a central committee to overhaul laws governing the tea industry has not gone down well with a section of trade union leaders, who fear that workers’ interests will be “under-represented”.

On March 13, 2007, the Union ministry of commerce and industry issued a notification (order number T-22105/13/2003-Plant A), in which Aditi Das Rout, director (plantations), department of commerce, ordered the examination of legislations related to the tea industry (see chart). He also ordered the constitution of a committee to initiate the process.

“In order to streamline, rationalise and harmonise the applicable laws with the objective of giving fillip to faster development of tea industry, it has been decided to constitute a committee,” the order read. Outlining the work of the 13-member panel (see chart) it added that the study would be conducted in tandem with the state governments.

The committee has been asked to submit its report to the Centre in six months.

“The members met for the first time in Delhi on April 3,” said Basudeb Banerjee, chairman, Tea Board of India. “We are now waiting for feedback from the members,” he added. “Once the committee has drawn up the report, it will be put up for debate in Parliament to bring about the necessary amendments.”

Alok Chakraborty, the district president of Intuc and the joint general secretary of National Union of Plantation Workers, is the sole member representing the workers in the committee. “The initiative was long overdue. Some of the laws, like the Plantation Labour Act, are more than 50 years old,” Chakraborty said. “It is time that they are suitably amended to fit contemporary needs.”

The decision, however, has drawn flak from rival trade union factions.

“We fear from the manner in which the government is going about it, that the exercise is aimed at taking away whatever little the workers receive at the moment,” said Chitta Dey, the convener of Coordination Committee of Plantation Workers (CCPW) — an umbrella body of trade unions. “The acts are the last resort of workers and we fear the government wants to take away even these. We are not opposed to progressive amendments aimed at workers’ welfare. We have ourselves been asking for legislative reforms for long. However, we are unsure of the government’s motives.”

Dey raised a series of questions to justify his apprehensions. “Why is it being done in such a hush-hush manner' Despite being the umbrella body, why has the CCPW not been consulted' Why are the workers so under-represented in the committee' We do not feel that the person selected to represent the workers’ side (Chakraborty) is an adequate representative.”

In reply to the accusations, Chakraborty said: “I have contacted my counterparts across country. I intend to consult workers’ representatives across the country and from different political affiliations. I will uphold the collective opinion.”

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