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Bonus row shuts gardens
- Planters and workers split on rate

Oct. 8: Two tea gardens in the Dooars today announced suspension of work after protests by labourers who want the Puja bonus at the rate of 20 per cent of annual wages, though an earlier meeting had finalised lower rates.

The Bamandanga-Tondu and Samsing estates had agreed to pay the bonus at 10 per cent and 14.5 per cent respectively at a meeting between planters and trade union leaders in Calcutta on September 30.

The September 30 meeting reached on a deal under which 143 gardens in the Dooars and Terai agreed to pay the bonus at 20 per cent, the highest rate permitted under the Plantation Labour Act. Thirty-six estates in the plains, which are either financially ailing or shut, had separate pacts with their unions for paying the bonus at lower rates.

“Both Bamandanga-Tondu and Samsing were among the 36 estates and were supposed to disburse the bonus at 10 per cent and 14.5 per cent respectively. But workers resorted to dharnas and demonstrations from October 4 to 7, demanding bonus at the rate of 20 per cent, which is a violation of the agreement. The respective management of the two gardens had no other option but to suspend work from today,” said Amitangshu Chakraborty, the principal advisor to the Indian Tea Planters’ Association.

While Bamandanga-Tondu has 1,156 labourers, Samsing’s workforce stands at 1,457. Industry sources said Bamandanga-Tondu and Samsing need Rs 32 lakh and Rs 63 lakh, respectively, to pay the bonuses.

Two more tea estates in the plains, Grassmore and Bandapani, have been hit by workers’ agitation over the same bonus issue.

According to the September 30 deal, the gardens were to disburse the bonus at 16 per cent and 17 per cent.

“However, the workers demand that the rate be increased to 20 per cent. Under no circumstances can we agree to pay at 20 per cent. An agitation is going on in Grassmore for the highest rate and it is taking a toll on the production. If there is no respite, we might have to think of closing down the garden,” said Rupak Deb, a Grassmore official.

In two other gardens, Bandapani and Ingdong, workers are angry because of the management’s alleged refusal to stick to the agreed bonus rate.

In Bandapani, the bonus rate had been fixed at 17 per cent, but the management now says it cannot pay at more than 12 per cent.

“We can pay the bonus at 17 per cent, but in three tranches. As of now, we can at best pay at 12 per cent. But workers are not ready to accept the rate and are holding demonstrations. We might put up a suspension notice soon,” said Anil Biswas, the manager of Bandapani estate.

Rajat Deb, the manager of Ingdong, said his garden should have been included in the list of 36 estates, which were allowed to negotiate with unions for lesser rates. “This means we have to pay bonus at 20 per cent. We have calculated that if bonuses and wages are put together, we need Rs 1 crore ahead of the Durga Puja. We cannot raise such a huge amount and have asked the workers to accept the bonus in installments. Unless there are talks, the labour problems would lead to the closure.”

Trade unions have said both the planters and the workers should adhere to the agreement.

“Workers should accept the bonus at the agreed rates and not press for a higher pay. The management should also refrain from talking about a lower rate,” said Chitta Dey, the convenor of the Co-ordination Committee of Tea Plantation Workers.

Baladeb Mondal, the assistant labour commissioner of Malbazar, said a meeting would be held in his office tomorrow to discuss the suspension of work in Samsing. “The owner of Bamandanga-Tondu was requested to reopen the garden tomorrow or else, we will hold talks on Wednesday.”