The formal negotiations for the annual bonus of around 3 lakh tea garden workers will begin on Thursday, but many believe that planters have an upper hand this year.
Sources said that the first round of bonus talks for tea gardens in the Dooars and Terai will be held in Calcutta on Thursday, preliminary bonus talks between unions of the Darjeeling tea industry and the Darjeeling Tea Association (DTA) were held last Friday. It was, however, a hush-hush affair with neither the planters nor the tea union representatives making it public, said a source. The DTA is a planters' association.
The secrecy has led many activists tracking the tea industry, especially in Darjeeling, to believe planters won the first round of bargaining.
Planters have to pay anywhere between a minimum of 8.3 per cent and a maximum of 20 per cent of the workers’ annual earnings as annual bonus. “Meetings between the union and management are held to fix this rate,” said an observer.
The unions have always demanded 20 per cent but there have been numerous occasions when unions settled for a lower rate with payments in installments.
This time, sources said, planters are adamant on 8.3 per cent, citing the constraints of the industry.
According to the industry practice, the annual bonus has to be paid to tea workers before Durga Puja.
“On May Day, Anit Thapa, president of Bhartiya Gorkha Prajatantrik Morcha (BGPM) and also the chief executive of Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA), had demanded that bonus negotiations should start immediately and that unions should not wait,” pointed an observer.
Not just Thapa, most political parties have in the past talked about starting bonus talks just as the tea plucking season starts.
There are four plucking seasons for the Darjeeling industry — first, second, monsoon and autumn. Although the first flush accounts for only 20 per cent of the production, the price it fetches is high.
The first and second flush production starts from February and goes on till June.
“The first and second flush command the highest prices. The idea to hold bonus negotiations during that plucking season is to put pressure on the management for a better deal,” said an observer.
The second flush production carries on till September. Autumn and winter flushes do not produce such good products.
But the moment Thapa talked about earlier negotiations, the planters opposed it.
The planter fraternity had told this newspaper that early negotiations were not possible.
Multiple sources from the tea industry management had earlier this year said that although the accounts of a tea estate close on March 31, work on the balance sheet continues till June.
“The financial position of a company would not be fully known by June,” one of the planters had said.
Another planter added that even though the bonus of the previous year is paid, funds are used from the current year.
“Right now, production of only the first flush, which accounts for 20 per cent of the total production, is over. How can we predict now (in summer) our financial condition will be in October (when the bonus is normally paid)?” another planter had asked.
Asked why the workers’ unions failed to press for early bonus talks, J.B. Tamang, the working president of the BGPM tea union said that they had tried.
“We did write to the DTA for early bonus talks but they (the planters) neither responded to our letter nor called a meeting,” Tamang told The Telegraph.
Sources said that the management of the Darjeeling tea industry have already told the Darjeeling unions that they wouldn't be able to pay more than 8.3 per cent as bonus this year given the overall financial health of the industry.
“They (the planters) always start with the 8.3 per cent talks. There is no way we will accept such a low rate. We want 20 per cent bonus at one go. What matters is the bonus rate that we deliver ultimately,” said Tamang.