| The locked gate of the garden. (Biplab Basak)
Siliguri, Sept. 4: The Tata Tea-owned Damdim Tea Estate issued a lockout notice this morning after the garden’s managerial staff was kept confined to the office for 15 hours yesterday.
The workers have denied the charges and blamed Uday Bhanu Das, the new manager of the garden who had come from Assam a few months ago, for the crisis.
The garden, 45km from here, was once considered a model tea estate in the Dooars in terms of worker-management relation. It was the first garden to complete individual electric metering system in the workers’ quarters, sources in the industry said. Even Chanu Dey, the CPM zonal committee secretary of Malbazar, where the garden is located, admitted that the track record of the garden as far as payment of wages, ration and other benefits are concerned, is near perfect.
“But the new manager was always experimenting — from holidays to work culture, he was changing everything,” said Dey. Apparently, Das had switched the weekly holiday from Sunday to Monday. “Not only that, plantation workers were brought to the factory and factory workers sent to pluck tealeaves. If any worker protested, the person was not assigned any work for 10 days at a stretch,” Dey added.
The lockout comes two months after Jairam Ramesh appealed to chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee to rein in “local-level leaders” of a Left trade union — meaning the Citu — to end the crisis in the tea industry. The request came close on the heels of the central minister’s ultimatum to owners of closed gardens to either open their estates or they would be acquired under Sections 16 (D) and (E) of the Tea Act.
But this time, it is not the “Left trade union” alone. Sadhan Bose, representing the Intuc-affiliated National Union of Plantation Workers in Malbazar said they were not happy with the manager either. “The labourers (the garden has 2,200 permanent labourers) were forced to work on August 15.” Bose, however, denied the charges of confinement. “Some workers had demonstrated near the factory yesterday. But most of the issues were sorted out at night through mutual discussion,” he added.
With D. Borah, the vice-president of North Indian Plantation Operations – the Tata Tea subsidiary formed with 21 gardens of Assam and four of north Bengal – not available in Guwahati, officials of the Dooars branch of Indian Tea Association (DBITA) have blamed the workers for the current crisis.
“Workers of the Barron division had confined the manager and some of his staff. They also did not allow the unloading of 46,000 kg of tealeaves brought to the factory,” said Prabir Bhattacharjee, the secretary of DBITA of which Damdim is a member.
Kallol Dutta, the deputy labour commissioner of Jalpaiguri, said his department was yet to receive a notice. “Company representatives have promised to settle the issue through bipartite meetings. In case it fails, we will fix a date for a tripartite meeting,” said Dutta.