VIVEK CHHETRI, TT, Darjeeling, April 16: Planters in Darjeeling have decided to inform the administration about a trade union’s alleged attempt to instigate labourers to go against the work hours fixed through an agreement.
They said the administration should hold the Darjeeling-Terai-Dooars Chia Kaman Mazdur Union responsible if there was a law and order problem in the gardens.
Although the Mazdur Union is not a force to be reckoned with in the hills, the garden owners fear that the provocation might spiral out of control as “workers’ issue appeals to all political parties”.
The Mazdur Union affiliated to the Communist Party of Revolutionary Marxists (CPRM) has been demanding that the eight-hour a day work time fixed for a garden labourer should also include his one-hour lunch break.
But the agreement signed with the planters and the unions on January 21, 2012, says “a worker would be working for eight hours in a day for the day’s wage and the lunchbreak would not be included in the working hours throughout the year”.
The tea unions of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, the CPRM and the Congress had been signatories to the agreement with the Darjeeling Tea Association (the planters’ body).
Of late, the CPRM union had been opposing the exclusion of the lunch break. The union said the earlier practice of including the lunch break in the eight-hour work schedule was still followed in the tea gardens of the Dooars and the Terai and there was no reason why the Darjeeling plantations should deviate.
Sandeep Mukherjee, principal adviser to the Darjeeling Tea Association, said: “The agreement was signed by K.B. Subba and D.K. Rasaily on behalf of the CPRM’s trade union. The fact that a worker needs to put in eight hours of work is in accordance with the Plantation Labour Act, 1951. But the CPRM union is lying to the workers and instigating them to go against the agreement, which has made the situation explosive in the gardens.”
“We will soon write to the assistant labour commissioner and the district magistrate requesting them to take note of the situation and hold the union responsible for any possible breach in the law and order in the gardens,” he added.
K.B. Subba, general secretary of the Mazdur Union, insisted that the new agreement must be scrapped. “We discussed the agreement with our party colleagues and we have decided to oppose the deviation. The agreement must be scrapped and the working hours must be reverted to the earlier practice to include the lunch break.”
Asked about the agreement which has his signature, Subba said: “Before signing the agreement we had protested. But the predominant union (which is affiliated to the Morcha) signed the deal and we could do little. We had only agreed on the need to improve the work culture in the gardens but we cannot agree on nine hours of work (including lunch) which is against the Plantation Labour Act, 1951.”
Section 19 (sub-section 1) of the Plantation Labour Act, 1951, states: “Save as otherwise expressly provided in this Act, no adult worker shall be required or allowed to work on any plantation in excess of forty-eight hours a week and adolescent or child for many than twenty seven hours a week.”
Md Rizwan, joint labour commissioner of north Bengal, said: “The Act states that the workers have to put in eight hours of actual work.”
More than 80 per cent of the 55,000 permanent work force in nearly 60 gardens under the DTA are members of the Morcha union, which is backing the new agreement. The DTA is the dominant planters’ organisation in the hills.
The rest of the 87 gardens that produce the premier Darjeeling tea haven’t yet drawn up any new agreement yet on the work hours.
Suraj Subba, general secretary of the Morcha-affiliated Darjeeling Terai Dooars Plantation Labour Union, said: “All the parties have agreed to stick to the provisions of the Plantation Labour Act and no worker is putting in nine hours of work. The CPRM which has signed the agreement is trying to politicise the issue.”
Subba said the workers would stand to gain during wage and bonus negotiation if production turned out to be good.
Asked why the industry was apprehensive when the dominant union was by its side, a planter said: “It does not take much time for a workers’ issue to spiral out of control. Then all political parties try to cash in on it.”