20 September 2016

Women Tea Workers Come Calling

Fifty women from the closed tea gardens of Duncans recently marched into the corridors of powers in Kolkata on a two-day trip to ask for their rights and to highlight the plight of their co-workers, families and gardens.

As one of the world’s leading tea producer and exporter, India’s tea industry employs more than 1.2 million people. Two regions, Assam and Bengal, produce over 70% of India’s tea and are also home to the worst working conditions for the tea plantation workers in the country. In contrast to the images of tranquil, lush green tea gardens presented to the consumers, tea plantation workers are paid poverty wages and endure appalling working conditions. Women, who make up 70% of the workforce, are especially affected.

In this context, a more complex situation has arisen in North Bengal —15 tea estates owned by one of the premier tea companies, Duncans Industries Private Limited, are in a state of limbo. They are neither closed nor open in the usual sense of the terms, with frightening consequences for the workers on the estates. The Central government, with its eye on the Assembly elections, got the Tea Board to take over 7 of these estates — all in the same Assembly constituency — just days before the elections.

They gained from the decision as the constituency has a BJP MLA now. The losers have been the workers in these gardens, with neither Duncans nor the State government nor the Tea Board willing to take responsibility for their conditions. 

The situation has added one more chapter in the shameful history of hunger in the tea industry. Apart from hunger, and being deprived of their livelihood, all of a sudden for no fault of their own, these women are now battling with the lack of basic amenities like water and electricity, lack of any primary health or education facilities. They have been forced into harmful and insecure odd jobs available nearby. Coupled with high rates of migration by the youth and the men of the gardens, the women have been left alone to tackle threats from the local mafia and goons, which is on the rise as these mischievous groups have been encroaching on the tea garden property and resources. 

While many workers have come together to form groups and start plucking by themselves, harassment from all quarters, ranging from middlemen to contractors, is rapidly destroying both the minimum chances of these women to survive and the huge areas of tea bushes, as the lush green tea gardens turn into jungles and women become invisible subjects of injustice.

With neither the government nor the management actively setting out to solve their plight, the women took the resolve of coming all the way from the north of the state to meet and request early effective intervention by the authorities.

08 September 2016

How W.Bengal Subsidises Tea Garden Owners, Deprives Workers

The Paschim Banga Khet Majoor Samity finds newspaper reports of bonus meetings in the tea sector being deadlocked due to the huge losses of owners absurd, as it does the plan by the State Government to intervene in what has traditionally been a strictly bipartite affair. This is because this year, especially, has been one when the State Government has bent over backwards to give huge concessions to the owners, by using the National Food Security Act (NFSA) and Central Government funds. The mechanism of doing this is given below.

It as an accepted practice, which has been reiterated by repeated tri-partite wage agreements, that tea garden management provides a portion of the wages of all permanent workers in the form of subsidised foodgrain.   These foodgrain are bought by the management from the market and then provided at 0.40 p per kg to all its permanent workers and their dependents.

Before the introduction of NFSA, tea garden owners were buying foodgrain at Rs 21 per kg and providing the same to the workers at 0.40 p per kg, with a subsidy of Rs 20.60 per kg. Generally, a worker with an adult wife and 2 dependent children would receive about 32 kgs of food grains per month, amounting to a subsidy of about Rs 660 per month. 

On October 30, 2016, the State Government amended the Public Distribution Supply Control Order 2013 to allow ration shops in tea gardens to be given to self help groups or the tea garden management. In at least 200 tea gardens, the management has been designated the ration shop owner making it easy for the management to replace their own foodgrain with Government-provided foodgrain after the introduction of NFSA.

The management now purchases foodgrain from the Food Department at Rs 2 per kg and is providing these to its permanent workers at 0.40 p per kg. While each worker is losing Rs 660 per month, taking an average of 1,000 workers per tea estate, each garden owner is adding Rs 6.6 lakhs per month.

This practice started in February 2016, seven months ago. Therefore, so far, each garden has saved an average of Rs4,620 per worker or Rs 46.20 lakhs per garden. This amount covers a substantial amount of the bonus demand of the workers.

The State Government is in full support of these practises. Effectively,the NFSA is now being used to provide a subsidy to the management with no benefits accruing to permanent workers and their dependents.

This action by the State Government has been taken unilaterally in consultation with the associations of employers, the Consultative Committee of Plantation Associations and its member associations. Workers or their representative unions did not at any point agree to this arrangement. Yet now, after having taken an action that supported the owners unilaterally at the expense of the workers, the State Government wants to intervene in bonus negotiations . Whether this is to increase its sphere of influence or to benefit the workers is debateable. We hope however, that good sense will prevail and the State Government will intervene on behalf of the workers.