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27 Jan 2017

Cloud on minimum wage in tea gardens

AVIJIT SINHA, TT, Siliguri, Jan. 24: Tea unions in north Bengal have expressed doubt on the state's seriousness to implement industrial minimum wages in the sector as an advisory board set up for the purpose met only twice in two years and its term is set to end in February.
No decision has been reached by the advisory board that was set up on February 17, 2015, for two years.
The additional worry for the garden unions is that the three-year wage agreement between unions and tea planters is also supposed to end on March 31, 2017.
The unions fear that if there is no move made by the state government to bring minimum wages in tea, the planters will again propose a Rs 10-15 raise in the previous wage and the long-term demand for a minimum wage will be pushed to the backburner.
Wages in the Bengal tea industry are revised and finalised through tripartite talks and agreements signed for three financial years. The previous agreement had ended on March 31, 2014.
The Joint Forum, an umbrella of 24 tea trade unions, had insisted during the talks that unless the state makes a decision on minimum wages, they would not sign any agreement on the wage hike for 2014-17.
Discussions were held nine times and finally, on February 20, 2015, the new tripartite agreement was signed. The agreement, though signed in 2015, was implemented with retrospective effect from April 1, 2014.
At the same meeting, state labour minister Malay Ghatak announced that his department has already made a notification on February 17, 2015, that a minimum wages advisory board be formed comprising 27 members for two years to recommend a minimum wage rate for tea workers in north Bengal.
"Altogether, the situation is dismal. Only two meetings of the board have been held where no decision has been made.... We have not received any intimation that its term could be extended. We really don't know to what extent the state is serious about fixing the minimum wages," Mani Kumar Darnal, the joint general secretary of the Intuc-backed National Union of Plantation Workers, said.
A tea worker earns Rs 132.50 per day. There are around three lakh workers in the state.
"We were hopeful that the state would expedite the process (on minimum wages) but it is disappointing," Ziaur Alam, the convener of Joint Forum, said.
"We sense reluctance among a section of tea planters to pay minimum wage as they pay a portion of the wages in kind now. Once minimum wage rate is implemented, they will have to the pay the entire wage in cash," Alok Chakraborty, an Intuc leader based in Siliguri, said.
Sources at the state labour department said they are looking into the issue. "The state is serious in fixing the minimum wages for tea workers like other sectors. However, there are certain legal issues like the plantation labour act which need to be consulted," a senior official said over phone from Calcutta.

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