Wage dues elude tea workers' kin
Guwahati: Boloram Kadh, a tea worker from one of the gardens owned by the Assam Tea Corporation Limited (ATCL), is having a harrowing time.
He is tired of running from pillar to post to produce a legal heir's certificate to be eligible to stake claim to the unpaid dues of his deceased relative. Kadh has already paid hundreds of rupees from his meagre income for the piece of paper, but with no success.
Kadh is among scores of tea workers under the ATCL who are not only facing a similar circumstance but are also unsure how much of their deceased relative's dues they are entitled to. The claimants of the deceased workers are also vulnerable to get exploited as some village headmen are asking them to pay money for the legal heir or succession certificates.
The ATCL owns 15 tea estates in Assam with 16,133 retired workers. Many of them had superannuated over 20 years ago while 839 retired persons are still continuing their services. The Supreme Court (SC), in its April 4 interim order, had observed that the condition of the workers who have worked for about 20 years and have not been paid their wages was pitiable and that some of them have been forced to commit suicide.
"Lawyers ask money to get the legal heir certificate. I have already spent so much that I can't recall. We fear that we will not get the unpaid dues. Our relatives died waiting for the dues. An affidavit costs Rs 500 and there are fees to be paid to the lawyers as well. We feel exploited as even the village headmen charge money," Kadh said.
The apex court had directed that the state government would give Rs 99 crore to the ATCL, which shall disburse the amount among the retired employees, and in case the workers have died, the amount shall be paid to the legal representatives and claims payments shall be made in chronological order. The process of verification shall commence immediately, and the government shall be entitled to recover these amount from all those employers whose primary duty was to pay the wages.
In June a convention was organised by the Human Rights Law Network (HRLN) and Joint Action Committee for Tea Workers Wage (JACTWW). Both the organisations, along with Anuradha Talwar of Paschim Banga Khet Mazdoor Samiti, asked the workers to form a committee as a proper representative platform to place the issues faced by them while availing the dues allotted to them.
"I found there are lot of loose ends and there are chances some of the workers may get cheated. Their conditions are bad. But pressure can be given on ATCL since it is government owned," said Talwar.
"The workers are not sure how much money they will get. Suppose a worker spends Rs 2,000 to procure a legal heir certificate and the unpaid due is Rs 2,000 will it be of any use? There is a fear of not getting the dues," said Debasmita Ghose of HRLN.
Activists asked the tea workers to form a representation so that a letter can be drafted highlighting the problems and send it to the labour department.