TT, Siliguri, May 11: Tea garden trade unions in north Bengal will take up the minimum wage demand for workers and issues like reopening of closed and acquired estates and food grains subsidy once the new government takes charge.
“Fixing minimum wage for tea workers is a longstanding demand and the present government was forced to form an advisory committee last year to recommend minimum wages. But so far, only one meeting of the committee has been held and no decision taken on minimum wage,” said Ziaur Alam, the convener of Joint Forum, an apex body of 24 tea unions.
“We are waiting for the formation of the new government and the moment it is formed, we will raise the issue. When workers in most other tea producing states are getting minimum wage, there is no reason why labourers of Bengal would not,” he added.
The minimum daily wage for tea workers in other states is around Rs 250.
In Bengal, the minimum wage demand was raised in October 2014 and since then, negotiations are in progress. Last year, tea planters and unions reached a consensus on the new rate and in February, the committee was formed.
The minimum rate for unskilled hands in agriculture sector is Rs 150 to 160 a day. Tea is in semi-agriculture category.
“We will also seek the state’s intervention, in association with the Centre, to reopen the closed tea estates. A number of estates are shut in the Dooars, while seven of the Duncans’ Goenka Group were acquired by the central government in January,” Mani Kumar Darnal, the joint general secretary of the Intuc-backed National Union of Plantation Workers, said.
“There are five other shut gardens in the Dooars for which the Centre or the state have not done anything. The state has cancelled the land lease of four of the estates. But no initiative was taken to find investors. The new government will have to look into the matter, otherwise, there will be movement in the tea belt,” he said.
The unions will also raise the issue of food subsidy.
Earlier, planters used to buy food grains and distribute the same among the workers at a subsidised rate. Now that the state has extended the National Food Security Act to the tea gardens, they are buying food grains at Rs 2 a kg – less than what they paid before.
“The planters are saving Rs 8 a kg. This means, the workers are losing a portion of their non-cash component,” Alam said. “We want the state to direct planters to hand-over the money they are saving to the workers in cash.”
Political observers said the new government should address the issues keeping in mind the three-tier rural polls in 2018 and Parliament polls in 2019. “If Trinamul comes to power again, it will try to penetrate into the brew belt and it will have to address the issues. If the Left-Congress alliance takes charge, they will have to resolve these issues to retain their base and prevent Trinamul from gaining support in the sector,” an observer said.