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Tea unions threaten wage strike

Siliguri, Aug. 18: Over 20 tea garden unions across north Bengal have threatened an indefinite strike if the government does not revise wages soon and announce a minimum wage for workers of the industry.

The 22 unions have formed an umbrella group — the United Tea Workers’ Forum — that held a news conference today to announce the threat.

“We want the state government to announce a minimum wage for the tea industry. The minimum wage in the state for unskilled workers in agricultural sector is Rs 206 a day. But tea workers are skilled and are workers. The minimum wage rate should be more than Rs 206,” said Chitta Dey, the seniormost tea trade union leader in the region and convener of the Coordination Committee of Tea Plantation Workers (CCTPW).

He said: “If the state government, which has convened five rounds of talks over past six months to finalise the revised rates of wages, does not fix the minimum wage and forces us to sign a tripartite agreement with garden owners, we will be forced to call an indefinite strike across north Bengal tea industry.”

The United Tea Workers’ Forum thinks the minimum daily wage should be Rs 322, taking into consideration the cost of living and education of children of a tea worker’s family of four.

While Trinamul-backed INTTUC has declined to be a part of the United Tea Workers’ Forum, it, too, feels that garden workers should get more than Rs 206, the state-fixed wage for unskilled farm labourers.

At present, tea workers in the Dooars and Terai get Rs 95 a day, and hill garden workers Rs 90 a day.

During the earlier rounds of wage talks, tea garden owners had indicated that they would allow a wage revision of Rs 21 over three years — which would mean a raise of Rs 7 per year.

The garden unions had spurned the offer.

“All of us have reached on a consensus on the issue of minimum wages and want the state to decide on it. We have also mentioned to the state government and to planters that the variable dearness allowance should be paid to workers so that they can tackle the consistent rise in prices of essential commodities,” Dey said today.

According to him, the garden unions had calculated the expenditure of a four-member family with one earning member and found that Rs 322 should be the daily wage for a tea worker.

The workers also want the government to declare the minimum wage for the tea industry, over and above which the garden owners would have to decide the wage. In the tea industry, there is no formalised minimum wage.

The wage rates are fixed after every three years and an industrywide wage agreement is signed in presence of state government officials.

The last wage agreement was signed in November 2011, which expired on March 31 this year.

The last round of meeting was held on August 7-8, but no decision was reached. The next round is supposed to be held a fortnight after the August 8 meeting, which would be August 23. The unions want a decision on the wage revision and the minimum wage at the next meeting.

“We will hold a public meeting at Baghajatin Park and a rally on August 20. Over 20,000 tea workers will attend the programme and will submit a memorandum to the joint labour commissioner at his office,” said Gautam Ghosh, the general secretary of Citu-backed Darjeeling Zilla Chia Kaman Mazdoor Union.

Dey said the unions were waiting for next round of talks and also the proposed visit of Nirmala Sitharaman, the Union minister of state for commerce and industries, to Assam on September 8.

“The Union minister of state has said that she will visit Assam on September 8 and meet us there to discuss these issues. If nothing comes out of these meetings, we would be forced to go on strike,” Dey said.

Leaders of the Trinamul Tea Plantation Workers’ Union, backed by the INTTUC, have said they are against strikes. “We also want a minimum wage to be fixed and that the revised tea wage should be over Rs 206…. We believe that a decision would come through talks and do not prefer to go on strike,” said Aloke Chakraborty, the Trinamul Tea Plantation Workers’ Union working president.

Planters today said trade unions should be “realistic” in their demands.

“Trade unions should not forget that we pay for several other services provided to workers under the Plantation Labour Act,” a representative of the Consultative Committee of Plantation Associations, said.