TT, Siliguri, Feb. 27: A forum of tea garden trade union leaders in the Darjeeling hills will organise a convention in Calcutta tomorrow to protest the non-payment of wages and dues in three plantations taken over from the Alchemist Group.
Jagat Poudyal, a member of the Cha Bagan Sangram Samity, today said the management of Dooteria, Kalej Valley and Peshok tea gardens in the hills had not been paying the 2,500-odd workers for the past three months.
"The three gardens were owned by the Alchemist Group. But in August last year, the estates were handed over to Trident Group. Since 2015, wage payment had been irregular in all the three gardens. After the management changed, workers were assured that the dues would be paid in installments and the current wages would be paid on a regular basis. However, since November last year, the workers have not been getting wages. The dues accumulated during Alchemist's period are yet to be cleared," Poudiyal said.
With such irregularities in the wage payment, the trade union leaders of different parties, other than the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, have formed a Joint Action Committee to raise the demands together.
"Even today, all the gardens are officially open and most of the workers report for duty. However, they are not paid. The workers are thriving on the food grains provided as ration by the state government. Even the distribution of the rations is sporadic at Peshok. In total, there are 2,584 workers on the three estates, along with 3,000 casual workers. As a whole, around 18,000 people have been affected because of the non-payment of wages by the management," Kapil Tamang, another member of the samity, said.
The trade union leaders said they had already met officials of the Darjeeling district administration and the state labour department to discuss the issue.
"Nothing has, however, changed. So, we have decided to take the matter to Calcutta where we will organise a convention tomorrow to apprise people of the crisis. On Wednesday, we will meet state labour minister Moloy Ghatak and seek his intervention," Tamang said.
According to the trade union leaders, the situation in the three gardens is similar to the state of affairs on some tea estates of the Duncans Goenka Group.
"The gardens of Duncans Group are officially open. The workers are, however, not paid their wages in due time. As the gardens are not closed, the workers are not entitled to get the monthly assistance from the government," said Tamang.
The unions are disappointed over the "silence" of the GTA. "We have met the GTA chief and apprised him of the situation in the gardens. But no initiative has been taken by the authorities to help the jobless workers," Poudiyal said.
An official of the state labour department said the matter would be taken up with the management representatives. "We are aware that Alchemist Group has handed over the gardens to another company and as per an agreement signed in August last year, the workers' dues would have to be cleared in tranches," he said.
"We would check with the management representatives whether there has been any irregularity in payments."
The management representatives could not be contacted.
Education minister Partha Chatterjee said on Monday that the government would call tea planters to attend a meeting to know the impediments faced by the sector in north Bengal.
Partha, who is also the chairman of the Tea Directorate set up by the state government, held a meeting at Uttarkanya in Siliguri on Monday afternoon.
"We have been closely monitoring the tea sector and have found that some gardens are still lying closed. There are some planters who often close down gardens for some reason or other. So, it has been decided that we will call the tea planters' fraternity to know from them why tea gardens are closing down in the region and what constraints hold back the industry from functioning in a smooth manner," the minister said.
In recent years, this is the first time that the state has made such a plan of calling and listening to the tea planters. Representatives of the planters' associations have time and again mentioned certain problems in running tea estates in north Bengal, particularly in the Terai and the Dooars.
The principal reason that is affecting the sector is low profitability, that is, price realisation, vis-à-vis cost of production, they had said.
"We are well aware of the problems faced by the workers. The state government is constantly putting efforts to improve their socio-economic conditions. But we need to know more from the planters and so, a meeting would be convened soon where we will hear them," " Partha said.