Agitation threat over tea garden dues

Alchemist defaults on pay

By Vivek Chhetri in Darjeeling
  • Published 5.01.16
Suraj Subba, the general secretary of the Morcha union, in Darjeeling on Monday. (Suman Tamang)

Darjeeling, Jan. 4: The trade union of tea estate workers affiliated to the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha today said labourers of three hill gardens owned by Trinamul Rajya Sabha member K.D. Singh hadn't been paid for two months and threatened to launch an agitation if the issue was not resolved at a meeting on January 14.

The Darjeeling Terai Dooars Plantation Labour Union said the three estates of the Alchemist Group in the hills had dues worth over Rs 5. 54 crore.

On January 14, the assistant labour commissioner's office is scheduled to hold a meeting between the management and the Morcha union to discuss the non-payment of wages.

Suraj Subba, the general secretary of the Morcha union, said: "Alchemist Group, whose chairman is Trinamul MP K.D. Singh, has not paid workers wages for the past two months. Rations have not been distributed to the workers for the past eight months and the total dues of the company have touched Rs 5. 54 crore."

According to him, the Rs 5.54 crore dues include gratuity, medical bills, rations and fringe benefits like distribution of umbrellas, blankets and scythes.

Singh is the chairman emeritus of the Alchemist Group which owns the three hill gardens through Dooteriah & Kalej Valley Tea Estates Private Limited. The estates are Dooteriah, Peshok and Kalej Valley. Dooteriah has 1,372 workers, while Kalej Valley and Peshok have 642 and 570 labourers, respectively.

Subba said the union would take to the streets if a positive outcome didn't emerge at a meeting convened by the labour department on January 14. "The assistant labour commissioner's office has called a meeting in Darjeeling on January 14 and if no solution is found to the problems in the three gardens on that day, we will take to the streets. We have noticed that despite our union cooperating with the Darjeeling tea industry, garden owners are not generally reciprocating by providing workers with their benefits. We are now thinking of starting an agitation to demand workers' rights," said Subba.

He did not disclose the details of the agitation that the union planned to start if the January 14 meeting failed. "We will announce the agitation on a later date."

The hills have 87 tea plantations in total. Tukvar estate, 10km from Darjeeling, is the only garden shut in the hills now. The management had issued a "suspension of operation" in Tukvar after some workers had allegedly tried to beat up a manager.

Sunil Thapa, a central committee member of the union and a worker of Dooteriah estate, said: "We even met K.D. Singh in Delhi on December 16 but apart from promises, nothing has come from his end. Senior company officials like P.K. Verma (director) and Sujit Bhattacharya (chief executive officer) have not given any concrete answers on paying the workers' dues."

Thapa said the management had neither closed the gardens nor was paying wages. "The gardens have not declared a lockout. The management is in the garden and workers continue to discharge their duties but they are not being paid," said Thapa.

Verma admitted that the management had not been able to pay wages to the workers.

"It is true that we have not been able to pay wages for sometime now, probably four to five weeks. We are trying to manage funds and hopefully, we will be able to clear some dues before the January 14 meeting. We will definitely be attending the meeting in Darjeeling," he said.

Verma said ever since the company had taken over the three gardens in 2006-07, business had not been good.

"To be very frank, it was a bad business deal. Tea bushes of Dooteriah are very old and the production is low. Kalej Valley is doing good but because of losses in Dooteriah, it has always been difficult (to run it). We are pumping funds from other business (of the group). Nevertheless, we agree that the workers should not suffer and we are trying our best," said Verma.