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13 Feb 2017

BLF wage triggers law & order fear... Tea garden workers minimum daily wage doubled

AVIJIT SINHA, TT, Siliguri, Feb. 12: Tea planters have said the state government's decision to fix minimum wage for workers at bought-leaf factories (BLFs) will prompt trade unions to seek a similar move for the labourers engaged in plucking leaves and create law and order problems.
The government had fixed minimum daily wage for a worker of a BLF in zone A at Rs 290.23, while the rate is Rs 256.5 in zone B. The daily wage was Rs 143 previously.
The decision was the first of its kind in the tea sector. The state is yet to fix the minimum wages for workers serving in tea estates and small tea plantations though the demand has been there for long.
The planters are worried over the fixing of minimum wage for the BLF workers.
"We are seriously concerned over the sudden decision taken by the state. The decision, we apprehend, will have serious repercussions for the tea industry of north Bengal and will lead to law and order problems," S. Guha Thakurta, the secretary of Dooars Branch of Indian Tea Association (DBITA), said.
The decision, he said, has come only one-and-half months ahead of the expiry of the industry-wide wage agreement, based on which the workers are paid.
The agreement will expire on March 31 this year and would be followed by tripartite talks among tea planters, trade unions and the state labour department to fix the revised wages.
"It is obvious that trade union leaders will raise demand for exorbitant hike as they will face the pressure of workers," said Thakurta.
Senior tea planters based in Siliguri said the minimum wages for the BLFs might seem to be higher than the daily wage of workers in tea estates - they get Rs 132.50 per day.
"Unlike the BLFs, we in tea estates provide several other benefits to our workers, like housing, healthcare, subsidised ration, transport arrangements for school children and provident fund. Altogether, the total expense of the non-cash components is around Rs 105 per day per worker or even more. This means we spend around Rs 240 or so for a worker," a tea planter said.
But the problem, he pointed out, is to convince the workers that they are getting close to the minimum wage of the BLF workers who are not provided with such benefits.
The small tea sector is also worried about the labourers' demand.
"We are in double trouble. On one hand, the risk of labour protests in small tea plantations is there. On the other hand, if the BLFs close down because of the high minimum wage, around 40,000 small tea growers of north Bengal will lose their means of earning," said Bijoygopal Chakraborty, the president of the Confederation of Indian Small Tea Growers' Associations.
The BLFs buy tealeaves from small growers and then manufacture CTC tea. In north Bengal, there are over 130 BLFs which have around 40,000 workers. It is the small growers who supply tealeaves to the BLFs.

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