The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Flutter in the gardens as thousands await job verdict

Calcutta, June 22: The fate of 25,000 workers will be sealed at a June 30 commerce ministry meeting that will review the closure of 20 tea gardens in Dooars and 10 in Assam.

The Tea Board has appointed A. F. Ferguson to look into the problems of these gardens and suggest remedies. The final report will be sent to the ministry soon.

United Bank of India, Uco Bank, State Bank of India and other nationalised banks have been asked to attend the meeting so that they can offer possible funding options if the consultant suggests that some gardens can be revived.

Acute financial crisis has forced the promoters to close down the estates which, Ferguson points out, are bedevilled by three main problems — reluctance of the promoters to invest, high interest payments and labour problems. Employee unrest has cast a shadow on Dooars gardens, which have seen workers rough up managers.

The Bengal government, concerned over the spectre of layoffs on such a large scale, has asked Tea Board to look into the issue. “Ferguson has made a preliminary presentation to us. The final report is awaited,” said Basudeb Banerjee, deputy chairman of Tea Board.

The layoff scare comes at a time when the tea industry is reeling under poor demand and falling prices of all varieties of tea, especially in the medium categories. Last month, Harrisons Malayalam (HML), an RPG enterprise, said it would lay off 1,500 tea garden workers to cope with an acute cash squeeze hobbling the company.

The firm said the job cuts, expected to save Rs 3 crore-Rs 4 crore in annual wage bills, have been forced by the slump in tea prices over the past four years.

Buyers have offered much less at auctions over the past four years to companies wrestling with bloated wage bills and spiralling input costs — a situation that has pushed most tea estates in Dooars, Cachar, Tripura, and a few in Assam’s Brahmaputra Valley, to the brink.

“The Bengal government is anxious about the outcome of the commerce ministry meeting. We want to end to the problem,” a state labour department official said.

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