Govt urges unions to drop tea strike

Siliguri/Jalpaiguri: Officials of the state labour department on Wednesday asked representatives of Joint Forum, the apex body of tea trade unions except those aligned to Trinamul, to withdraw a three-day industry strike called later this month.

The forum has called the July 23 to July 25 strike to press for minimum wages to be fixed and implemented. On Wednesday, a meeting was convened by the department at Uttarkanya here. Representatives of tea planters' associations and trade unions were present.

"Two meetings would be held during the next fortnight. On July 12, a meeting of the minimum wage advisory committee would be held in Calcutta to discuss the issue. On July 17, a tripartite meeting will be held in Uttarkanya to discuss on some other issues pertaining to the workers. The state labour department has asked the unions to refrain from the agitation and strike as talks are in progress," said a source.

Representatives of the planters' fraternity sounded concerned over the strike.

"Production is on in full swing at the tea gardens. At such a time, regular protests in gardens, followed by a three day strike is something that the industry would find hard to sustain," said Prabir Bhattacharjee, secretary-general of the Tea Association of India.

Representatives of Joint Forum, however, are not ready to budge. "Since 2015, when the advisory committee for minimum wages was formed, discussions are going on. But there hasn't been any headway so far. The planters are trying to appease the workers by providing an interim hike and delaying the process," said Alok Chakraborty, an Intuc leader based in Siliguri.

Asked as whether they would attend the upcoming meetings, he said: "We will attend the meetings as we have been invited by the state. But we would give a second thought to our agitation only if some major decision comes out of these meetings."

Meanwhile, a tea garden with 550 permanent workers closed down in Nagrakata block of Jalpaiguri on Wednesday. The management has not put any notice, announcing suspension of work so far in the garden. "We are looking into it and will soon call a tripartite meeting," said Partha Biswas, the deputy labour commissioner of Jalpaiguri.

For past few months, the management was facing financial problems, said sources. "There can't be any other reason as nothing has happened in the garden in these days," said Sushil Oraon, a leader of BJP-backed Bharatiya Tea Workers' Union.

Wage formula

Tea planters have explained their position on minimum wages.

The unions want the ratio of dependants to workers fixed at 1:3 in deciding minimum wages. The planters favour a 1:1.5 formula.

"This (the ratio) figures in the minimum wage advisory board report of the state government of 1952 and the same principle was considered by the 1966 wage board award applicable to tea plantations," Arijit Raha, secretary-general of the Indian Tea Association, said.

Additional reporting by Vivek Chhetri in Darjeeling


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