Siliguri, Aug. 3: For the first time in the history of the small tea sector, over 10,000 workers serving in 75-odd bought-leaf factories (BLFs) across north Bengal, have decided to strike work on August 17.
The strike, called by members of various Citu-affiliated unions, is in support of the demand to immediately change the existing wage structure and introduce ancillary facilities as enjoyed by their colleagues in large tea gardens.
“There is no uniformity in the payment of wages at the BLFs in the districts of Cooch Behar, Jalpaiguri, Darjeeling and North Dinajpur. While the management of some factories pay Rs 40-45 to a labourer for a day’s work, others give a consolidated sum of Rs 4-5 per hour. In the lean season, they do not have any job,” said Ajit Sarkar, the Darjeeling district secretary of the Citu. “The strike is in protest of such anomalies.”
Tea industry sources said around 60 million kg of tea is produced in the small tea sector at these factories every year, utilising tealeaves bought from 15,000 small tea growers of the region. This is 28 per cent of the total produce of north Bengal, they said.
“The factory owners do not abide by legislations like the Plantation Labour Act. Unlike those working in established tea gardens, workers here cannot avail of benefits like health facilities, ration, provident funds, gratuity,” alleged Ziaur Alam, the state convener of Cha Bagan Mazdoor Union in the Dooars.
The other three Citu affiliated unions — Darjeeling Cha Kaman Mazdoor Union, Cooch Behar district Cha Bagan Sramik Union and North Dinajpur Cha Sramik Union — have also joined the strike, echoing demands of the Citu’s central leadership.
“At a tripartite meeting on January 21, this year, it was decided that the problem would be addressed by March 31, but nothing has improved till date,” said Sarkar, a Citu leader.
The members further said nine meetings had been convened on the issue so far, but a concrete decision is yet to be taken. The Citu leaders have also sought government intervention in the issue.
“We want the BLF owners to sit with us and take a decision regarding this. In case they do not cooperate, we want the state government to issue a notification and fix the wage structure and other benefits for workers,” Sarkar said.
The BLF owners, however, maintained that factory laws should be followed at their units and not plantation laws, as the Citu has been demanding.
“The tea industry is showing signs of revival and it is not wise to declare a strike at this time. Instead, we prefer bipartite discussions at local levels,” said Prabir Seal, an executive committee member of North Bengal Tea Producers’ Association, representing the BLFs.