The closed gate of the Matelli tea estate. (Biplab Basak)
Oct. 31: The management of a Dooars tea garden has suspended work at the estate after differences with workers on paid Puja leave but the garden union suspects the management did this because it did not want to pay hands during the approaching lean season.
Sources said the workers of Matelli tea estate had been upset with the garden authorities after the management refused to grant three days of paid Puja leave.
Tulsi Oraon, the general secretary of the Akhil Bharatiya Adivasi Vikas Parishad-affiliated Progressive Tea Workers’ Union, said that at Matelli, workers would generally be on duty for the whole of Saptami and Ekadashi and they would get three paid Puja holidays — Ashtami, Navami and Dashami.
“But when the workers joined duty on October 25 after Dashami, the manager said only two paid holidays would be granted and wages would be deducted for the third day. The labourers were told that they would have to work on Sunday (otherwise a weekly off day), if the third day was to be declared a paid holiday. The workers were disappointed and held gate meetings and demonstrations, all in a peaceful manner,” Oraon said.
He said the issue could have been resolved through talks but the management instead took the drastic step of closing the estate.
Oraon said he suspected the garden management did not want to keep the estate open in the lean months — November to February — as that would mean paying garden hands and running up other costs.
But the garden management said it closed the estate apprehending unrest after the protests. The notice put up in the garden also mentioned that the owner’s car had been attacked.
“The workers were asked to work on October 28, a Sunday, to make the third day a paid holiday. They refused and informed the manager in writing that if their demand for three holidays was not met by October 31, they would launch an agitation. The management apprehended law-and-order problems and left the garden,” said Prabir Bhattacharjee, the secretary of the Dooars Branch of the Indian Tea Association, of which Matelli is a member.
“There is no denying that we launched protests and held meetings on the holiday issue. But there was not a slightest breach of peace in the garden. The management has left the garden without any valid reason. Each worker, employee and resident of the garden is taking care to maintain peace and protect the property. Our only demand is the early reopening of the garden,” said Sripati Chakraborty, the secretary of the West Bengal Tea Garden Employees’ Association.
The estate, 62km from Siliguri, is spread over 1,046 hectares and tea is cultivated in 668.6 hectares. It employs 1,600 permanent workers and 500 casual labourers.
The notice put up last night at the garden instructed management representatives to leave the garden immediately. They all left this morning. A copy of the suspension notice was sent to the labour department also. The notice said work has been suspended from October 28, but workers said the garden was run smoothly on Monday and Tuesday.
The workers were taken aback by the sudden departure of the management today and protested outside the police station, demanding the immediate intervention of the administration to reopen the estate.
The state labour department said it would hold a meeting of the management and workers on November 2 to resolve the issue.
“We have received a written intimation from the garden’s manager that the work has been suspended since October 28. A tripartite meeting has been called on November 2 to resolve the issue and pave way for the early reopening of the garden,” said Baldeb Mondal, the assistant labour commissioner of Malbazar.