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Tea officials confined by TMC union

- Discussion on garden functioning turns into heated exchange, gherao follows

June 30: Two officials of a tea estate in the Dooars and a planters’ association representative were confined for five hours by supporters of a Trinamul-backed trade union after a bipartite meeting turned into a heated argument.

The union workers relented after a police team went to Chengmari Tea Estate.

Since noon, the three officials were made to sit in the room of the north Bengal office of the Tea Association of India without food or water.

Stakeholders of the industry have expressed concern over the confinement that comes months after a garden official was murdered by a worker. On March 27, the assistant manager of Dalmore tea estate in Dooars was hacked to death by the worker, who alleged that the official had misbehaved with his wife.

Industry stakeholders said they feared the return of Left-era-like militant trade unionism.

Sources said that around 50-odd workers of Chengmari reached the Tea Association of India (TAI’s office) at noon to attend a bipartite meeting called by the management to discuss certain issues pointed by the Trinamul Tea Plantation Workers Union (TTPWU), which is the dominant workers’ outfit in the garden.

All the workers were Trinamul union members and were led by its joint general secretary Amarnath Jha, who is from Chengmari. The meeting commenced around 11.45am, with D.S. Parmar, the general manager, A. Sarkar, the deputy manager, and Ranjit Dutta, the secretary of TAI’s north Bengal branch.

“The discussion continued for 15-20 minutes after which the workers and union leaders suddenly stood up and said the meeting had been inconclusive. They were trying to dictate terms and not making any suggestions. Within minutes, they announced that they would keep us confined in the room unless we decided on their demands,” Parmar, the general manager, said.

The workers squatted outside the room and started shouting slogans.

According to garden sources, there are two other trade unions in the garden. The other two are the Citu-affiliated Cha Bagan Mazdoor Union (CBMU) and the Intuc-backed National Union of Plantation Workers (NUPW).

“On March 8, we had submitted a charter of demands to the management. As they paid no attention, we demonstrated in the garden on June 14 and 15. Again, on June 26, we started a relay hunger strike to achieve the demands,” Jha said.

“The management representatives and police turned up then and requested us to withdraw the relay hunger strike with a promise that a bipartite meeting would be held in the TAI office on June 30.”

“Accordingly, we came to attend the meeting today but the management representatives, from the beginning of the meeting, started behaving like bullies and misbehaved with us. This made the workers angry and they demonstrated and decided to confine them in protest,” the Trinamul trade union leader said.

Asked about their demands, Jha listed concrete quarters for each worker, employment in the garden for educated youths, building a hospital, filling vacancies in the work force and early payment of gratuity to retired workers, as some of the reasons why the meeting was called.

The tea estate, located at Nagrakata block in the Dooars, is known to be the largest tea estate of the country in terms of production. It has a plantation area of 1,340 hectares with an annual production of around 35 lakh kg and 4,000-strong workforce.

“The management had issued a pre-lockout notice on June 17. They had mentioned that if such demonstrations continued, they would be forced to declare a lockout in the garden. Even then, the Trinamul trade union acted irresponsibly and created today’s situation which has left us apprehensive of closure of the garden,” said Dil Kumar Oraon, a leader of the Citu-backed union.

Parmar, when asked about the workers’ demands, said: “As far as their demands are concerned, most are being met and work is under progress at the garden. These are general issues and cannot be sorted through talks with only one union, as we have two other unions in the garden.”

“Nevertheless, we decided to hold bipartite talks to resolve the issues as protests in the garden were affecting daily activities. But the manner in which they kept us confined for five hours without food or water is disappointing. We have informed officials at the state labour department, requesting them to convene tripartite talks to discuss on the issues.”

“We have witnessed militant trade unionism of gheraos, attacks and strikes, which affected the tea industry during Left rule. The Trinamul trade union mushroomed in the tea belt and gained ground as the government changed in the state. But the manner in which senior officials were kept confined today has left us worried,” a veteran planter based in Siliguri said.

“If such agitations continue, it would bring back the old days.”