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Strike off, tea embargo stays

Siliguri, July 27: The Progressive Tea Workers’ Union has called off tomorrow’s general strike but will continue to stall the despatch of tea, a decision that planters said would further hit exports that is already down because of excessive pesticide content.

The planters also said if the agitation was not withdrawn immediately, there would be a serious deficiency in working capitals in the gardens and the workforce would have to bear the ultimate brunt as the management would be unable to pay wages.

The PTWU leaders, after a meeting at Lakkhipara in the Dooars today, said the general strike had been withdrawn keeping in mind the inconvenience that it was likely to cause people. “We will, however, continue to stop the despatch of tea and demonstrate in front of the garden gates till a decision is reached,” said Shukra Munda, the PTWU chairman.

Business worth Rs 20 crore is being hit everyday since the PTWU, the dominant union in the nearly 208 gardens of the Dooars and Terai, started enforcing an embargo on the despatch of tea from yesterday. The union has been demanding a daily wage of Rs 250 for workers. The current wage in the plains gardens is Rs 67.

Baijnath Naik today resigned from the post of the general secretary of the PTWU, alleging that workers’ welfare was no longer the focus of the union. “The priority is on other issues,” he said. Naik, however, did not elaborate what the “other issues” were.

“If the decision to stop movement of tea from gardens is not withdrawn immediately, there would be a severe deficiency in working capital,” said Prabir Bhattacharya, secretary of the Dooars Branch of Indian Tea Association.

The DBITA is the largest association of tea planters in the country. “Regular cash inflow is necessary for each business establishment and the tea industry is no exception. We make and sell tea and earn money to make payments. Now if the movement of tea is stopped, it would not be possible for us to pay wages to workers over weeks by taking loans from banks at an interest rate of 12 per cent or so,” he added.

Bhattacharya said when the government had already scheduled a meeting, “an agitation that economically affects the sector was unjustified”.

The labour department has called a meeting on August 4 to resolve the wage hike issue.

Tea exporters based in Siliguri also said a prolonged labour crisis in the tea industry would create a negative repurcussion among international buyers of CTC brew.

“In the current years, exports are already lower than last year, particularly because of the presence of pesticides beyond the MRL (maximum residue limit),” an exporter based in Siliguri. “Our main buyers of CTC teas are Russia, Egypt and some European countries. Many of them have scaled down orders or have even returned consignments because of pesticide presence beyond MRL.”

Buyers in these countries, exporters said, are sensitive to the workforce engaged in the sector. “In case they find that workers in the Indian tea industry are agitating for wages, it creates a negative idea. In that case, they might turn to other countries like Kenya and Sri Lanka,” an exporter said.

Leaders of other trade unions were also critical of the PTWU’s decision to stop the despatch of tea. Chitta Dey, the convener of the Coordination Committee of Tea Plantation Workers — an apex body of trade unions — said the agitation was affecting the collective bargaining power. “Acts like this one by a single trade union is affecting the workers’ movement and weakening our collective bargaining power,” Dey said.

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