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13 Jun 2017

Peak season strike hits tea industry hard

Sovon Manna & Pinak Priya Bhattacharya | TNN | Jun 13, 2017, KOLKATA/JALPAIGURI: Plucking of second flush tea leaves in gardens across Darjeeling was paralysed as workers stayed away on Monday, the first of the two-day strike over implementation of daily minimum wage by the state government. The strike coincided with the indefinite work of Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) in the Hills.
Around 57,000-odd men and women who work in 87 tea estates in the Hills stayed off work on Monday. Over half the workers at gardens in the Dooars and Terai also struck work. But it is the gardens in Darjeeling that will be the worst hit as it is estimated to effect production of nearly 85,000kg that commands a premium.
"The strike couldn't have come at a worse time. This is peak second flush output season," said Sandeep Mukhjerjee, principal advisor, Darjeeling Tea Association (DTA). The stir has added to the strain on tea gardens in Darjeeling that are already reeling under the impact of climate change, drop in global prices, scarcity of skilled labour and high production cost.
"The current second flush season amounts to 20% of the total annual production of tea and one day's work loss means 1% of output drop. The present strike is not justified as meetings are underway with the next one scheduled on June 20. Such disruption of work is uncalled for and will shake the confidence of Darjeeling tea importers," the DTA official said. Garden workers and unions have demanded a three-fold hike in minimum wage. A series of meetings attended by representatives of the government, producers, workers' unions and the Tea Board have not yielded a result. Apart from Darjeeling, around 44% gardens in the Dooars and Terai took part in the strike.
Attendance in the gardens was partial. "Despite efforts by the district administration and producers to get labourers to work, majority of them stayed away ," said Raju Sahani, leader of Akhil Bharatiya Adivasi Vi kas Parshad.
Jia-ur-Alam, convenor of the Joint Forum of Tea Garden Workers' Unions, said garden owners have, for three years now, failed to submit in writing to the government their stand on the demand. "Protests will cease as soon as they do so," he said.
Azam Monem, chairman of the Indian Tea Association (ITA), the largest tea producers' body of the country, said gardens in the belt functioned sporadically. "The strike should not have been called in the midst of a peak production season," he said.
Tea Board of India chairman Prabhat Kamal Bezboruah said he was examining a memorandum jointly submitted by the workers' unions and coordination committees.
"There are some genuine points.One is the state government's delay in announcing daily minimum wage and the other is distribution of inexpensive foodgrain under NFSA through the producers' bodies, which is given directly to workers in other states. But, unions should not resort to strikes. It doesn't benefit anybody ," Bezboruah said.
According to Goodricke's AN Singh, strike in the peak season will result in loss of crop and quality . "It will break the back of the tea industry in Darjeeling," he said.
Undeterred, the Joint Forum has called a 10-hour general strike in the tea belt on Tuesday. "Because of the R









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