20 August 2011

Tea Workers' Struggle A Just Cause

The New Trade Union Initiative supports the continuing united industrial action by 32 unions represented by the Coordination Committee of Tea Plantation Workers supported by the Defense Committee for Plantation Workers Rights and other unions for an increase in wages from the present Rs. 67.50 to Rs. 165 and a re-introduction of Variable Dearness Allowance (VDA).

The tripartite negotiation, that began with the lapse of the previous industry wage agreement on 31 March 2011, entered a deadlock after 6 rounds of negotiation when the Consultative Committee of Plantation Association (CCPA), refused to accept the demand of theCoordination Committee for an increase in daily wages from Rs.67 to Rs.165. Thegovernment then made an informal proposal to the unions to accept an increase in wage to Rs130 at par with the MGNREGA wage. The CCPA offer for wage increase stands at Rs 24spread over three years at Rs. 8 each year to Rs. 91 in three years time. This means that the employers are offering a wage increase, even with the additional component of wage in kind,that would keep wages below the national floor wage and also below the state agricultural minimum wage.

The West Bengal state government along with the employers has come down heavily against this united action of the trade unions in the region. The employers, on one hand, have resorted to wage cuts in several gardens and have even declared illegal lockouts. On 4 August, the management of Bharnobari Tea Estate (a garden, employing 2,034 workers, that remained closed for a period of over two years between 29 December 2005 till 27 April 2008 and experienced 28 starvation deaths during this period) began to deduct wages of workers for participating in the hour long gate meetings that were being organised by all trade unions in every garden calling for a resolution of the present deadlock. When workers protested the illegal wage cut, the garden manager threatened to declare a lockout in the garden. Hundreds of workers led by women activists of the Paschim Banga Cha Bagan Shramik Karmachari Union gheraoed the manager and the 6 assistant managers and walked them 2 km to the Hashimara Police Station and filed a complaint of harassment. The management has sinceabandoned the garden. Similarly, in the Debpara Tea Estate, employing 1108 workers, the management announced a ‘suspension of work’ following protests by workers.

On the other hand, the newly formed state government has adopted a dual strategy to break the unity of the workers. In response to the strike call by the tea unions, the Chief Minister of West Bengal said “... The politics of strike cannot be allowed to go on... Numerous tea gardens have remained shut. There can be problems, but strikes cannot be used as a tool to deprive people of their rights.” She also added that if necessary her government would legislate to ban strikes. This is in blatant violation of the right to strike of workers. The political right to strike is organically linked to the fundamental right to association and collective bargaining of workers as enshrined in our constitution and is an inalienable part of trade union response in times of dire crisis. This is also in violation of the ILO Conventions 87 on Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise and 98 on Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining. Even the United Nation's Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights enshrines the right to strike.

The government has also begun parallel wage negotiations with the Progressive Tea Workers’ Union (PTWU) which is not even a member of the Coordination Committee that represents 32 unions in the industry and, along with the Defense Committee, is the bargaining agent for workers in the tripartite negotiation. The PTWU had initially demanded a daily wage of Rs 250 against the demand of Rs. 165 plus VDA made by the Coordination Committee. When the CCPA turned down this proposal, the PTWU also decided to support the strike called by the Coordination Committee on 7 August 2011 and supported by the Defense Committee as well as many other unions, including the All India Central Council of Trade Unions (AICCTU) and the union affiliated to the Indian National Trinamool Trade Union Congress (INTTUC.

But, following a bilateral meeting on 10 August 2011 with the State Industries Minister,Partha Chatterjee, Development Minister, Gautam Deb, and the Labour Minister, Purnendu Bose, the PTWU announced that they would go on strike on 17-18 August if the wage for plantation workers is not increased to a minimum of Rs 90. This is not just diluting the wage demand of the Coordination Committee but also breaking the existing united movement of tea workers. The union on 14 August has also withdrawn its proposed two-day tea strike from 17 August after a meeting with north Bengal development minister Gautam Deb. This parallel negotiation process is also undermining the ongoing tripartite negotiation and driving a wedge in the unity of workers in the industry.

NTUI welcomes the coordinated effort of the unions in the Coordination Committee of Tea Plantation Workers and stand in solidarity with the continuing struggle for a wage agreement in the tea industry in Bengal. Further, NTUI strongly condemns the state government’s threat to ban strikes and its efforts to circumvent the tripartite negotiation. We call upon the Government of West Bengal to respect the:

1. Right of the bargaining agent for workers - the Coordination and the Defence Committees - in the tripartite negotiation on tea
2. Framework of tripartite negotiation in industry wage agreement
3. Right to Association and Collective Bargaining of workers
4. Principles of a just minimum wage for all workers

Ashim Roy, General Secretary, NTUI
[PBKMS is affiliated to the NTUI]

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