A mega rally has been called by a joint forum of tea garden unions on June 6 in Siliguri, where the unions of all political parties, including ruling All India Trinamool Congress (AITC), Left parties and the BJP, will demand implementation of minimum wage at a market appropriate rate.
“We were offered a minimum daily wage of Rs 212 by the garden owners during a recent tripartite meeting on March 17. The offered amount was completely unacceptable,” Saman Pathak, working president of Darjeeling District Chiya Kaman Mazdoor Union, told ET. “The state labour minister Becharam Manna, who was in the meeting, also objected to this proposal. Till date, there is no progress on the issue.”
As a first step, the unions will put forward their demand through the rally, said Pathak. “If the state government does not take it forward, we will go for an indefinite movement in June until the demand for daily minimum wage is accepted,” he said.
Trade union members said the tea garden workers of Darjeeling, Terai and Dooars will stay away from work and not do the plucking unless the demand of minimum wage is accepted.
The trade unions had launched a huge protest on August 6, 2018, after which they received a hike in minimum wage benefit. There are altogether 78 tea gardens in Darjeeling, 41 in Doors and 205-216 in Terai region. About 450,000 labourers work in the tea gardens of this region. Around 10 gardens are closed at the moment.
In 2018, the trade unions had also demanded social security, including education, land, electricity and food security. Tea garden workers have been demanding an increase in minimum wage for several years.
“The last wage revision was done in 2015. After that, whenever the garden workers intensified their protests, miniscule hikes were given. Some minor wage increments were made, with the last one being in 2020 before the assembly polls. With a meagre wage of Rs 202, workers are struggling amid poverty and poor healthcare system,” said Pathak.
Tea garden workers have been demanding that the minimum wage be determined keeping in mind certain standards set by regulatory authorities, where a worker and his family members (generally three) should get 2,700 calories of food, a certain amount of clothing and 20 per cent fuel for cooking purposes, according to people aware of the matter.
Children of tea garden workers should also receive education and other social benefits, as proposed by the Supreme Court in a 2013 verdict, said Pathak. With all these components in mind and inflation, a minimum wage of Rs 212 as proposed by the garden owners is simply unacceptable, said union leaders.
An AITC-backed labour union leader said on condition of anonymity that the Mamata Banerjee-led state government is providing ration, water and housing facilities, as well as Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe certificates. “However, we are demanding minimum wage revision and land rights,” said the AITC leader.