Thousands of workers from tea gardens affiliated to 22 labour unions of north Bengal organised a rally at Siliguri in Darjeeling on Wednesday demanding a minimum wage structure for workers of tea gardens.
The workers who had assembled from nearly 300 tea gardens in Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri , Alipurduar and even from smaller tea gardens of Uttar Dinajpur district walked a three-km stretch in Siliguri town. The representatives of the 22 labour unions submitted a memorandum to the Joint Labour Commissioner, North Bengal Zone. The protests took place in the wake of starvation deaths of workers of locked-out and abandoned tea gardens.
The protest was addressed by Abhijit Mazumdar on behalf of AICCTU, among others.
Below is an excerpt from the memorandum to be submitted to the Commerce and Industry Minister Nirmala Sitharaman.
Reclaiming the rights of the tea workers in West Bengal
India remains the second largest tea producing country in the global arena. Notwithstanding this deep market penetration of the captains of the industry, the huge working population (more than 4 lacs permanent labourers) engaged in the tea sector in West Bengal are rendered impoverished and malnourished, living on a lower than subsistence wage structure and are being deprived of the statutory entitlements due on them as per The Tea Plantation Labour Act, 1951. Presently 6 tea gardens in the Dooars region are lying closed, the resident workers are dying in hordes (the death toll reached beyond 100 in the last 6 months or so) in absence of basic living amenities like food, medical facilities, potable drinking water, access to alternative employment opportunities and minimal wages, suffering from prolonged malnourishment and starvation. The erstwhile managements of all 6 closed tea gardens and scores of purportedly declared sick gardens, as speculators, amassed huge surplus during market booms without spending a farthing either for labour welfare or the rejuvenation of their plantations, and refusing to shoulder the associated social cost or liabilities. They left their gardens leaving the entire working population to their fate, defaulting even on the amount of money to the tune of crores payable to the workers as PF and gratuity.
The very recent report based on a thorough survey of all 276 organised tea gardens, conducted by West Bengal State Labour Department is full of incriminating evidences against the managements of several closed, sick and even open gardens.
The gravity of the prevailing situation warrants a strong and effective intervention on the part of the Central Government machinery to chart out a viable course for immediate opening and revival of the closed tea gardens in West Bengal.
The Tea Plantation Labour Act, 1951 enshrining the basic rights of the working population is rampantly flouted and in the name of revamping the act the planters are pleading to revisit it towards scaling down further such statutory rights vis-à-vis need-based wages (ascertaining the base on 3 consuming units), subsidized rations, proper housing facilities, supply of fuels, medical and educational facilities for the workers and their wards etc.
TPLA ought to be reinforced with vigour and any violation of any sort must be met with penal actions.
The Tea Board of India, formed under the provisions of Tea Act 1953, must ensure its avowed assistance to the tea sector in terms of replantation, rejuvenation of poor yielding and old aged tea-bushes, modernization of operations, spreading popularity of tea domestically and globally, creation of irrigation facility, drainage and transportation facility, assistance of product diversification, improving labour productivity, skill improvement, upgradation, value addition etc. It must look through and monitor that no measure of such assistance be falsified by the planters and engaged in maximizing profit and siphoning off the surplus by adopting unfair means.