The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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Wage storm brews in Assam tea cup

Jorhat, May 26: Another round of labour unrest looms large over Assam’s recession-hit tea industry with the state’s largest workers’ union deciding to demand a 40 per cent hike in wages.

Asom Chah Mazdoor Sangha (ACMS) general secretary Madhusudhan Khandait said from his Dibrugarh office today that his organisation would place the demand before the Consultative Committee of Plantation Associations there on Friday.

“We understand the industry is passing through a bad phase, but the labour force deserves a hike in wages,” he said.

Trying not to sound adamant, the union leader said his organisation was open to the idea of a debate on the legitimacy of the demand.

The last labour wage agreement lapsed on December 31. At present, the daily wage of a permanent worker of any garden in the Brahmaputra Valley is Rs 48.50. In the 112 registered gardens of the Barak Valley, a permanent worker is paid Rs 38.50 a day, though the last wage agreement between planters’ organisations and the Cachar Cha Sramik Union pegged the minimum wage at Rs 42.50.

Assam has 850-odd tea gardens, which fork out Rs 4.5 crore daily as wages. The ACMS general secretary said the demand for a sizeable hike was justifiable in the light of a wage agreement being valid for three years. “We cannot settle for a low hike in labour wages. The condition of the industry may improve after a year, but the labour force will be stuck with the same wage pact, which is unfair,” he said.

Senior office-bearers of the Consultative Committee of Plantation Associations, however, said labour wages could remain stagnant given the condition of the industry. “Everybody knows that the industry is going through a bad phase. The industry cannot afford an additional cost burden,” one of them said.

On the ACMS deciding to demand a 40 per cent hike in wages, the official said: “Forget 40 per cent, the industry cannot afford even a 5 per cent increase in the present scenario. If the ACMS sticks to its demand, many gardens will have to close shop.”

A couple of years ago, the consultative committee promised to hike labour pay by Rs 5.45 a day, but backed out later by citing the industry’s precarious financial condition.

The industry witnessed unprecedented labour unrest last year over Puja bonus. Most gardens decided to pay bonus at the minimum stipulated rate of 8.33 per cent or thereabouts, sparking an agitation that turned violent in some gardens.

Three managers were killed in mob attacks and many more physically assaulted. The crisis reached boiling point when seven workers were killed in police firing at Khobang tea estate of Tinsukia district. The workers had allegedly tried to attack the managerial staff following a dispute over bonus.

Industry sources said the Indian Tea Association was planning a new disincentive scheme to penalise workers who fail to pluck at least 21 kg of leaf per day. The association’s plan envisages deducting Rs 2.31 from a worker’s daily wage for every kg short of the target.

The disincentive system that is in force allows deduction of 27 paise per kg from the wage of a worker who fails to complete the assigned task. Those who pluck more than the target get an incentive of 27 paise per kg.

Assam’s tea industry employs about six lakh permanent workers and a large temporary workforce, especially during the plucking season. The state accounts for 53 per cent of the country’s tea production.

The decline in the quality of Indian tea is cited as the reason why competitors have found a foothold in world markets. The recession is, however, attributed to the manifold increase in the cost of production.

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