13 March 2014

Tea Workers Present Demands Charter

The United Tea Workers Front (UTWF) was launched on 27th December 2013 at Siliguri, primarily to raise the issue of a living wage and related matters in the forthcoming wage negotiations in North Bengal.  The launch was preceded by a number of discussions between unions about the non-transparent and anti-working class manner in which wage negotiations take place in the tea sector in West Bengal and the total absence of any kind of conception of minimum wages in these negotiations.

At its launch, the UTWF presented its Charter of Demands for Terai, Dooars and Darjeeling , which concentrated on the following:
  • Wage negotiations must be completed before the expiry of the present agreement, which is valid till 31st March 2014.
  • The negotiations must take place in Siliguri and Darjeeling, instead of Kolkata, so that workers and their leaders can participate in a much more active manner in the negotiations, instead of feeling marginalised, as they do in Kolkata.
  • Tea workers must be included in the Scheduled Employments under the Minimum Wages Act 1948. The Government of West Bengal must notify wages under the Act for tea workers and any collective bargaining agreement must ensure that wages are above those fixed under the Minimum Wages Act. A calculation made using the widely accepted 15th ILC recommendations and Supreme Court orders showed that this would.
  • Any deductions made from such a minimum wage for benefits under the Plantation Labour Act must be calculated in a transparent manner. All such calculations and documents must be made available to the workers and their unions.
  • All wage and non wage benefits must be extended to all bigha (seasonal) workers.
  • The Tea Board must also participate in the discussions.
  • All other fiscal issues such as Wages & Salary, Extra Leaf Payment, Dearness Allowances, Variable Dearness Allowances, LTA and Additional Compensation must be resolved alongside, and all cash payments, including the daily rated wage should be inflation linked with 100% compensation for inflation.
  • All vacant posts must be immediately filled. Trainings for skill improvement must be undertaken.

On 7th and 8th January, the UTWF presented its charter of demands to the Labour Minister and the Coordination Committee of Plantation Associations (CCPA). The Labour Minister received the demands of the UTWF positively. He seemed in favour of inclusion of tea plantation workers in the Scheduled Employments and was also in favour of the need to have negotiations in Siliguri and Darjeeling, if the employers were agreeable. He was however initially of the opinion that it would be impossible to hold wage negotiations before the Lok Sabha elections, but later he assured us that they could be started before the 31st March 2014 and he would also try to ensure completion by 31st March 2014.  The CCPA told us “the dynamics in the industry had changed. We are aware of this and will respond accordingly.”

Immediately after this, the CCPA invited the UTWF to the negotiation on Leave Travel Allowance formally recognizing it as one of the important stakeholders in the industry.

The UTWF has since then organized the following programmes:
1.      Meeting of garden level leadership of the Doars at Birpara on 17th January 2014, attended by about 200 workers.
2.      Meeting of garden level leadership of Nagrakata and surrounding blocks attended by about 500 workers at Nagrakata TE on 20th January 2014.
3.      Meeting of over 400 women workers on 24th January 2014 , in collaboration with Karmajivi Mahila Parishad , a state level council of women workers from 11 trades, at Malbazar culminating in a deputation to the SDO on the demands of women workers as well as submission of the UTWF Charter.
4.      Meeting of garden level leadership of Terai region at Bagdogra TE on 25th January 2014 attended by about 100 workers.
5.      Public convention of tea workers at Nagrakata attended by about 400 workers on 6th February 2014.
6.      Presentation and discussion of the UTWF charter of demands to GTA Sabha members at Darjeeling on 7th February 2014.

Besides this, garden level meetings have taken place in a large number of gardens throughout the region.

The UTWF also had to face a setback when four of the leaders of its constituent, Terai Dooars Progressive Plantation Workers Union, were arrested on false charges on 27th January 2014, while organizing a bandh protesting the gang rape of an Adivasi girl at Labhpur in Birbhum. This includes one of the UTWF Convenors, Kiran Kalindi and a member of the UTWF Committee, Baijnath Naik. They are still in jail and have been refused bail so far. Despite their absence, other leaders of the union are continuing with their organizing and campaign work successfully.  

The UTWF’s movement has had the impact of bringing to the forefront the issue of very low wages in the tea sector. After it raised the demand for Rs.322 as the daily minimum wage (inclusive of all benefits)  based on the 15th ILC  and Supreme Court orders and inclusion in the Scheduled Employments under the Minimum Wages Act,  other unions have also  made similar demands. The Co-ordination Committee publicly presented its charter of demands on 10th January 2014 and later TMC led unions have also made public statements about their demands. There seems to be an industry–wise agreement amongst unions, with both the Coordination Committee and the TMC led unions raising the demand for inclusion of tea workers in the  Minimum Wages Act. Similarly, the Co-ordination Committee has demanded a cash wage of Rs.285 and the TMC led unions Rs.290. If non-cash benefits provided under the Plantation Labour Act are added to this, the amount would be even more than the Rs.322 as asked for by the UTWF.

A second impact has been that the Joint Labour Commissioner on the 8th January 2014 announced the Government’s intention of holding the first meeting for wage negotiations on 25th February 2014 at Siliguri.
Anuradha Talwar (Principal Convener), P. T. Sherpa (Convener, Darjeeling), Leos Hasapurti, Kiran Kalindi (Convenors ,Dooars),Rajesh Toppo, Harihar Acharya  (Convenors , SiliguriTerai)