Darjeeling, Aug. 19: Darjeeling tea industry officials today said it would be difficult for the gardens to pay workers the annual Puja bonus if the hill parties chose the path of economic blockade to raise the Gorkhaland pitch.
Sources in the tea industry said they would write to the Gorkhaland Joint Action Committee appealing to them that they must not go ahead with any economic blockade.
The joint action committee had yesterday said it had discussed the issue of imposing an economic blockade on transport of tea and timber as part of its long-drawn agitation for a separate state of Gorkhaland. But Enos Das Pradhan, the chairman of the committee, had said no decision had been taken in this regard.
Tea industry sources said that negotiations on the bonus and the appeal to the hill political parties should not be seen as a quid-pro-quo. “These are basic facts that we would like to lay out before all the political parties in the hills. We will not just write to the chairman of the Gorkhaland Joint Action Committee but will also address the letter to all the eight outfits that constitute the committee,” said the official.
“If the finances of the tea gardens take a beating then we will not be able to pay wages to the workers, distribute rations, buy coal and diesel or even start negotiations on the bonus,” a senior official of the Darjeeling tea industry said. “How can we fix the bonus rate when we are not sure about our finances?”
Members of the joint action committee did not want to comment on the appeal. “The agitation is being collectively spearheaded by all the political parties in the hills. No single party can influence a decision and it would also not be proper to comment on the issue before the committee deliberates,” said a member of the joint action committee.
The committee is scheduled to sit for a meeting on August 30.
The 86 gardens in the hills employ 55,000 permanent workers and 16,000 temporary hands. Lack of wages or bonus would adversely affect around 3 lakh hill people.
“One must remember that the tea gardens have not been shut during the ongoing agitation and this means we have to pay the workers their wages. We have stored coal and diesel for about two weeks but if the economic blockade is imposed, it will be difficult to pay wages, distribute rations and replenish our stocks,” said the tea industry official.
Bonus negotiations have to start from September and sometimes they take weeks.
“Annual wages have to be distributed two Sundays before the Puja vacation starts,” said the official.
Bonus percentage is calculated on the total annual earnings of a worker and 20 per cent is the highest bonus rate fixed under the Plantation Labour Act, 1951.
Police arrested Prabha Chhetri, a Morcha GTA Sabha member from Tindharia, in Kurseong on Sunday night. Twenty-five Morcha activists were also held, taking the number of arrests to 515 since the protests started in July.