Tea trouble brews as Mamata pushes for regional unity on farm laws

Over 2.60 lakh workers of the state’s more than 350 tea gardens will go on strike if the minimum wage is not fixed at the meeting convened by the state government in Kolkata on December 14.

Darjeeling tea garden
The tea workers' demand has put the ruling Trinamool Congress in a tight spot ahead of the assembly elections due in less than six months. Photo PTI FIle

At a time when West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee is trying to mobilise regional parties for nationwide agitation against farm laws introduced by the Centre, trouble is brewing in her backyard over minimum-wage demand of tea workers.

Over 2.60 lakh workers of the state’s more than 350 tea gardens have threatened to go on a stir if their minimum wage is not fixed at the tripartite meeting convened by the state government in Kolkata on December 14.

Also read: Wages, closed gardens to decide fate of LS polls in Bengal’s tea belt

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“If the government fails to meet this long-pending demand of ours on December 14, then workers will be compelled to launch an agitation,” said Saman Pathak, general secretary of Darjeeling district’s Centre for Indian Trade Unions (CITU) and former Rajya Sabha MP.

The demand has put the ruling Trinamool Congress in a tight spot ahead of the assembly elections due in less than six months. To woo the tea workers, the state government in September announced Chai Sundari scheme to build brick houses for the workers of sick tea gardens.

Tea workers are the deciding factor in at least 15 of the state’s 294 assembly seats.

Workers say the housing scheme is fine, but the more important issue is that of the minimum wage which is very low. At present, their minimum wage is ₹176.

State Labour Minister Moloy Ghatak, addressing a public rally in Alipurduar on Friday (November 4), said the government would take a call on the revision of wage rates in a couple of months.

The workers, who have been agitating over the low wage for years now, want the government to fix the minimum wage in keeping with the provisions of the International Labour Organization (ILO)’s Minimum Wage Fixing Convention.

Also read: Darjeeling tea gardens’ sell-off deal brews fear of Chinese takeover

A committee set up to determine how the national minimum wage should be calculated as per the ILO convention last year recommended that it should be ₹375 per day or ₹9,750 per month.

As per the formula for calculating the national minimum wage, it is presumed that each wage-earner supports three people and that each person consumes at least 2,700 calories per day. In addition to food basket, expenses on clothing, medicines, transport and education of children are calculated to arrive at the figure.

Pathak said the tripartite meeting of representatives of all the workers’ unions, Consultative Committee of Plantation Association (CCPA)—an organisation or tea planters—and state government was convened as the earlier meeting on December 4 failed to resolve the issue.

The tea workers demand gained ground at a time when the ruling TMC is trying to build a nationwide unity demanding the scrapping of the farm laws, dubbed as anti-farmers by the party.

Representatives of the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), led by the party’s senior vice-president Prem Singh Chandumajra, on Saturday (December 5), met senior TMC leaders ina bid to unite regional parties in support of the farmers agitating against the laws.

Banerjee had called her counterparts in Delhi Arvind Kejriwal and Telangana K. Chandrashekar Rao on Friday to discuss the farmers’ issue. She had also spoken to agitating farmers over the phone and extended her moral support to their agitation.

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