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Dues rage on estate owner

Aug. 1: The owner and the manager of Panighata Tea Estate in Mirik were confined to the garden office for around six hours today by a section of workers owing allegiance to Trinamul and others affiliated to the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha demanding immediate payment of dues.

The gherao was lifted around 1.30pm after local Trinamul and Morcha leaders assured the agitators that their demands would be discussed with the state labour department.

This morning, over 300 workers, most of them from the INTTUC-backed Darjeeling Tea Workers’ Trade Union and few of them from the Morcha-backed Darjeeling Terai Dooars Plantation Labour Union (DTDPLU), went to the manager’s office.

“They started demonstrating from 7.30am, demanding immediate payment of dues. The management has provident fund dues worth Rs 2 crore, gratuity of around Rs 25 lakh and nine rations due for the past two-three years. This made the workers angry and they started the gherao,” Rajen Mukhia, a Trinamul leader in Panighata, said.

Rations are distributed among workers every fortnight. During the protest, garden owner Shankar Saraf and manager A.D. Sharma were forced to sit on the ground.

Around 12.30pm, Harihar Acharya, the Terai convenor of the Darjeeling Terai Dooars Plantation Labour Union, Mukhia and policemen from Panighata outpost reached the garden. “We spoke to the owner and the manager about the non-payment of dues. The owner told us that he was facing a financial crisis. We told them a date should be fixed to make the payments,” Mukhia said.

The garden in Mirik block is 35km from Siliguri. It has 800-odd workers and produces around 5.5 lakh kg tea every year. “How can workers keep on working when the management is not clearing dues despite several reminders? We have held bipartite meetings earlier to resolve the issue but there has been no initiative from the management to clear the dues,” Acharya said.

The local leaders decided to take up the issue with the state labour department.

“We will write to the joint labour commissioner in Siliguri seeking his intervention to resolve the problems. The owner and the manager were told that they should attend the tripartite meeting. Other unions will also send similar letters,” Mukhia said. “When the management agreed to attend the meeting, we told the workers about the development and the protest was withdrawn.”

Saraf, however, said he had cleared all dues except provident fund. “The demonstration took place as the workers had information that we wouldn’t not distribute umbrellas and tarpaulin sheets among them. It is a convention to distribute these items so that labourers can work during rainy season. We have stocked up the items. There was confusion among workers which is why, the demonstration and gherao continued for so long,” Saraf said this evening.

Today, almost half of the workforce of the garden did not report for duty.

Saraf said: “I took over the garden in 2012 and I have cleared most dues. A part of provident fund is due which I am supposed to pay in instalments. Because of inclement weather and loss in production since April, I could not pay the installments for the past three months. I had planned to clear the amount this month. There are no other dues. The workers and trade union leaders must understand our situation and help us run the garden. We are ready for talks to resolve any issue related to the workers.”