Guwahati, Feb. 15: The Assam tea industry has for the first time pointed fingers at the Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangha for not doing enough to control absenteeism which has a direct bearing on production cost.
Addressing the 124th annual general meeting of the Assam Branch of Indian Tea Association (Abita) at Tezpur today, chairman C. Bora said the union had done little to address the issue despite repeated requests by the management.
Bora said the tea industry had recently revised plucking incentives to encourage workers to achieve higher productivity. The step had improved productivity and earnings but had also led to higher absenteeism, giving the management at the estate level a harrowing time on a day-to-day basis, he added.
He said the union, although appreciative of the incentives, had done little to address the issue of absenteeism despite repeated requests by the management.
The problem is compounded by shortage of temporary workers. “With higher daily cash wage elsewhere, the workers are opting out of garden work while retaining the family and utilising all facilities of the estate,” Bora said.
“Absenteeism has become a serious issue and has to be addressed with mechanisation at the cost of quality teas which Assam is best known for,” he said. At present the average rate of absenteeism is 30 per cent.
Admitting that absenteeism was a problem with workers going outside the estates to work, Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangha general secretary Dileswar Tanti told The Telegraph that given the high cost of living, workers will go outside the gardens to earn more. “We cannot stop them.” He said the industry, while finalising the next wage agreement with the union, should take into consideration the prevailing market conditions and fix wages accordingly. The present wage agreement expires this year. Bora said cost control of the Rs 8,000-crore Assam tea industry would continue to be a major concern and its sustainability would depend on how cost elements, particularly labour, was managed by optimising productivity without compromising on quality.
At present, labour cost is 55 per cent, manufacturing cost 25 per cent, and other costs 20 per cent of the total cost of production of tea.
He also said the gains in price realisation had been largely offset by a significant increase in the cost of inputs like petroleum products, coal, electricity and fertilisers, over which the industry has little control.
“Added to this is the recent decision of the government to discontinue allotment of foodgrains to the industry. This will force the industry to buy its requirement of foodgrains from the open market at double the cost, which will substantially increase our cost of employment,” he said.
He said the biggest threat to the industry was climate change in the recent past which had manifested itself in hotter and wetter spells, bringing to the fore challenges to address pest attacks, which again, due to stringent pesticide residual norms, had to be conservatively addressed.
“The IIT Guwahati, which collaborated with us to study climate, has predicted prolonged dry spells and wet precipitation, compelling the industry to work on an integrated water management system which would eventually be required to address foreseeable prolonged dry and wet spells,” he added.
Wildlife conservationist Prerna Singh Bindra, who was the guest of honour, said global warming was the greatest threat to the tea industry of Assam, which needed to plant more trees.