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18 Dec 2016

Dooars tea wage anger dam breaks

TT, Alipurduar, Dec. 17: Around 1,200 workers of a Dooars tea garden today laid siege to the estate office and kept the manager confined for five hours demanding their wage dues be paid in cash.
The workers also threatened to beat up the management staff at Bhatkhawa Tea Estate in Kalchini block when the employees couldn't specify a date when the wages - held up because of the demonetisation cap on withdrawals and the lack of bank accounts among labourers - would be paid.
The situation was brought under control after the manager promised to find a solution by Monday.
The Bhatkhawa Tea Estate, which employs 1,860 workers, makes weekly payments unlike most gardens, which disburse wages every fortnight. But the payment cycle has gone awry since the demonetisation announcement on November 8.
On November 21, the Reserve Bank took note of the difficulties estates were facing in paying their workers and, at a meeting with banks in Calcutta, lifted the weekly cap of Rs 24,000 on withdrawals for two weeks so that wages could be paid. The central bank also said bank accounts must be opened for all tea workers so that the wages could be directly transferred.
As the RBI has not issued any guidelines on tea wage payments since the November 21 relaxation, the withdrawal ceiling is back in place. Moreover, in only 15 of the 300-odd gardens in the Dooars do all workers have bank accounts.
At the Bhatkhawa estate, over 300 workers don't have bank accounts, making it impossible for the management to transfer wages as that would create law-and-order problems.
"What disappoints us is the managerial staff had to face such demonstrations without any fault of theirs. Managers and other senior employees at the gardens are scared as they think the situation can spiral out of control any time," said Amitangshu Chakraborty, the principal adviser of the Indian Tea Planters' Association. "If it starts in one place, it could spread."
At Bhatkhawa, wages have not been paid for the past two weeks because of the cash crunch. The gherao was lifted when N.K. Pandey, the estate manager, told the workers he would visit the bank concerned on Monday and speak with officials to find a way of paying the wages.
After the November 21 relaxation, Bhatkhawa Tea Estate had cleared wages for four weeks. But the management has not been able to disburse wages since the last round of payments in November-end because of the cash withdrawal cap being re-imposed.
Kamal Oraon, the garden unit secretary of the SUCI-backed National Tea Plantation Employees' Association, said although the management had taken the initiative of opening accounts for its workers, the bank was 15km away. "We will lose a day's wage if we travel to the bank to withdraw money," he said.
A planter in Jalpaiguri said labourers in many gardens were not getting wages and there could be more protests.

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