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15 Mar 2017

Unions' threat for minimum wage stirs TMC pot - Joint Forum warns movement if pay for tea garden workers is not fixed by April first week

VIVEK CHHETRI and AVIJIT SINHA, TT, March 14: The Joint Forum, a conglomeration of 24 tea garden trade unions, today said a movement would be launched if the state government failed to fix minimum wage for the sector by the first week of April, posing a fresh challenge for the Trinamul Congress which was trying to cement its base in the brew belt through a single union.
The revision of the wage of tea garden workers, which is for a period of three years, is due on April 1.
The forum had already made it clear that its constituents wouldn't attend tripartite meetings convened by the labour department to discuss the new pay for the next three years.
Suraj Subba, the advisor of the Joint Forum, said: "A minimum wages advisory board was formed by the state government two years ago but it met only three times. The wage revision is due from April 1. We will wait only till the first week of April and if the minimum wage is not fixed and implemented by the state by then, we will start a movement across north Bengal."
All tea trade unions, other than that of Trinamul, are constituents of the forum.
In February 2015, the state government had formed the advisory board of planters, union leaders and government officials to recommend the minimum wage for tea plantation labourers in Bengal.
"Our demand was that the minimum wage for the industry be fixed at Rs 322. We have heard that the planters want the minimum wage to be fixed at Rs 158. We will summarily reject such a proposal," said Subba.
At the moment, the daily wage of a tea garden worker is Rs 132.50.
The forum's decision to launch the movement is bound to leave Trinamul in a tight spot, senior leaders of the party's trade union said.
"Trinamul had five unions in the tea sector earlier. That caused confusion among workers and at the directive of the Trinamul leadership, they all merged and a single union was formed. Many members and leaders of other unions joined the newly launched Cha Bagan Trinamul Congress Mazdoor Union. The Joint Forum's threat to launch the agitation comes at a time Trinamul is cementing its base in the tea belt. Trinamul has to tread a cautious path now. On one hand, Trinamul union leaders cannot openly speak against the government for delaying the minimum wage decision. On the other hand, they cannot sit idle and let other unions campaign against the government. The Trinamul unions will have to, in some way or the other, convince workers that the party, too, is in favour of minimum wage," said a Trinamul union leader.
Trinamul will also have to strike a balance if negotiations are held on the minimum wage. "Considering that there is a sharp difference between the rates proposed by the planters and the Forum, the state cannot take a one-sided decision as it would antagonise the other side," said a Trinamul leader.
Mohan Sharma, the president of the Cha Bagan Trinamul Congress Mazdoor Union, said it was yet to take a stand on the minimum wage.
"The current wage agreement will expire in a fortnight. We are watching the situation. In the last week of March, I will go to Calcutta and speak to Trinamul leaders. Based on the consultation, we will take a stand on minimum wages," he said.
Sandeep Mukherjee, the advisor of the Darjeeling Tea Association, said: "It is unwise to talk about agitation while advisory board is holding negotiations. Union leaders are aware that we are in the process of formulating various parameters to arrive at the minimum wage figure."
The next meeting of the advisory board is tentatively scheduled for the first week of April, he said.

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