Chamurchi Tea Estate. Picture by Biplab Basak
Alipurduar, Jan. 23: The management of Chamurchi Tea Estate today announced suspension of work after a wage protest by workers, making this the fifth garden to close in six months over payment disputes in the Dooars.
“In July last year, Dalmore Tea Estate was closed down, while the managements of Red Bank and Surendranagar gardens abandoned the plantations in December. Madhu Tea Estate was also shut the same month. All the five plantations were shut because of wage issues,” said Md. Rizwan, the joint labour commissioner in Siliguri.
Tea trade union leaders blamed the garden management for not taking steps to check errant hands but punishing the entire workforce for the rashness of a few.
It is also common knowledge that gardens do little or no business in winter. Cash flow is thin, making wage payment difficult for small estates that don’t make high profits.
“It’s unfortunate that a section of planters does not take steps according to rules to end a crisis and straightaway locks out estates to mount pressure on the workforce,” said Chitta Dey, the convenor of the Co-ordination Committee of Tea Plantation Workers, the apex body of tea garden unions, including the Intuc and Citu.
“There can be some disobedient workers in a garden. The management can take disciplinary action against them. But it is unacceptable that the management, in most cases, leaves the gardens, blaming the entire workforce,” Dey said.
At Chamurchi, around 100 workers gheraoed the general manager for over five hours yesterday to protest non-payment of full wages to 60 labourers who had allegedly failed to finish work within the stipulated hours.
The workers kept the gherao on till 8pm after which the general manager ordered payment of full wages and left the estate around midnight along with other managerial staff.
This evening a notice by the management announcing suspension of work, was put up at the estate gate.
Chamurchi was shut down in 2000 when the tea industry was hit by an economic slump. The garden with 941 workers was reopened in October 2009 following its takeover by a new entrepreneur.
The garden is spread over 500 acres and is 85km from Alipurduar.
Yesterday, the workers got angry when the management paid only half the wage to 60 workers, saying they had not done their scheduled tasks in the stipulated eight hours.
“The labourers became annoyed and around 100 of them entered the office of general manager Gyan Prakash Dixit at 2pm. The workers gheraoed him and demanded full wages,” said a source.
“Finally at 8pm, they withdrew the agitation when Dixit ordered the payment of full wages to the workers. At midnight, Dixit and other management officials left the garden.”
The source also quoted the management as alleging that the workers had ransacked furniture in the office.
Chitta Dey said there was a trend among planters to shut down gardens during the lean season — from November to February-end — when there was no yield and maintenance of bushes was done.
“There is no cash flow during the lean season and to avoid payment to workers, some owners close down gardens. We fear some more gardens might close down during the current season,” he said.
The Indian Tea Planters’ Association, of which Chamurchi is a member, is yet to contact the management, said Amitangshu Chakroborty, the principal advisor to the body.
Smaraki Mahapatra, the district magistrate of Jalpaiguri, said a directive would be given to the labour department to initiate negotiations to re-open the garden.
The Telegraph couldn’t contact the Chamurchi management.