The ongoing impasse between the tea planters of Darjeeling hills and trade unions over the payment of bonuses to workers serving in 87 tea estates that produce the world-famous Darjeeling brew deepened on Wednesday.
At a bipartite meeting held among the planters and the trade unions, planters expressed their inability to pay the bonus at 20 per cent of the workers' salary, a rate demanded by the unions.
As the meeting failed, the Darjeeling Tea Association (DTA), which represents the hill gardens, sent a letter to the district magistrate of Darjeeling. In the letter, they mentioned that the tea gardens can, at best, offer a bonus at the statutory rate as per the bonus act, that is, 8.33 per cent.
“We have made it clear that considering the crisis which the Darjeeling tea industry is confronting, it is impossible for the gardens to pay the bonus at 20 per cent,” said Sandeep Mukherjee, the principal adviser of the DTA.
The hills have around 55,000 permanent workers in the tea gardens.
Senior planters of the Darjeeling tea industry said that over the past few years, the industry has been reeling under several crises.
“In 2017, the industry took a beating during the strike across the hills that lasted for over 100 days. As a result, the annual production dropped from 9 million kilos to 6.5 million kilos. On the other hand, the daily wage rate has increased by 50 per cent. Altogether, the situation is miserable in most gardens,” said a planter.
In the letter to the district magistrate, the DTA has also said that the tea industry needs active government support for its sustenance.
“On one hand, the prices are stagnant. On the other hand, a section of people are importing teas from Nepal and then exporting to some countries as Darjeeling tea. This practice has hit the industry,” a planter added.
As these 87 gardens are located on hilly terrain, there is hardly any option to expand the plantation area.
“Also, yields are declining as the bushes are old and also have been affected by climatic changes. If the central and state governments don’t support us, there are doubts about how many gardens will exist in the hills in the coming years. Many are on the verge of closure,” said a source.
Trade unions are not ready to budge from their demand of bonus at the rate of 20 per cent.
J.B. Tamang, the president of Hill Terai Dooars Plantation Workers’ Union, backed by Anit Thapa's Bharatiya Gorkha Prajatantrik Morcha, said there was "no question of settling at a lower rate".