The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Workers caught in wage fight
New trouble brewing

Jaigaon, May 3: Nine persons were injured when a section of workers of the closed Bharnobari tea estate, 16 km from here, beat them up during a wage meeting this morning.

Among the nine were two children and four women workers, who had opposed the new wage structure that was announced today. The remaining three were members of an NGO, who were conducting a training programme in another part of the garden.

The attackers, owing allegiance to a financier, also ransacked a clinic run by Child in Need Institute (Cini). A complaint has been lodged with the Hashimara police outpost, 3 km from the garden. Cini, which was running a nutritional programme for children, has decided to withdraw its Bharnobari unit.

Rupan Mahali, one of the injured women, said today’s meeting was held to discuss the new wage set-up proposed by Suresh and Naresh Agarwals, the financiers who have offered to run the garden instead of the operations and maintenance committee (OMC). The garden with a workforce of 2,100 had closed down in 2005.

“We opposed their offer as we were already getting Rs 50 from the OMC as against the Rs 45 they had proposed. But the minute we dismissed the proposal, some workers from among us, all men, started beating us,” said Mahali who is also a leader of the Jalpaiguri-Hashimara Adivasi Mahila Sudhar Samity.

“These men claimed they had formed a new committee and that the Agarwals would pay us wages from May 7 to December,” added Mahali. Like her, many women at the garden feel that in the absence of a legitimate owner, the financiers were fighting among themselves to take possession of the plucked tealeaves. “In the process, they are making us victims,” said Sita Lohar, who was also injured.

Some workers on conditions of anonymity said a section of OMC members might have got money for backing the new financiers. “Otherwise, why will they go for lower wages'” a worker asked. Madan Sarki, the OMC convener admitted that a section of workers within the committee were backing the Agarwals.

Tushar Bhattacharya, a spokesman for Cini, said: “They have attacked three of our members and taken away Rs 25,000 in cash. This was the first garden where we had started the project, but we will not work here anymore.”

Joseph Kujur, an OMC member, who has been named by some workers as the mastermind of today’s attack, was unavailable for comment.

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