Planters appeal to unions to bring normalcy in Bengal's tea gardens (Lead)

Kolkata : Amid continuing agitation at the tea gardens in north Bengal and an ongoing three-day strike over minimum wages, planters on Thursday appealed to the unions to call off the protest programmes and allow normalcy to be restored.

A tripartite meeting was held on Monday in Siliguri where the state Labour Department officials outlined the progress on the issue of minimum wage.

The Joint Forum of Trade Unions, an umbrella organisation of trade unions working in the tea sector, however, said it had called the strike after the meeting to hold negotiations on the demands on minimum wage turned out to be inconclusive.

According to planters, the tea industry in north Bengal's Dooars and Terai regions have already suffered substantial production losses during the peak season in 2018 due to frequent gate meetings in the first and second weeks of July.

Darjeeling's tea industry, which is in recovery mode after suffering huge losses to the tune of around Rs 500 crore in 2017 due to the 105-day strike, is in "no position to bear any further disruptions".

"Therefore, unless normalcy is restored immediately, the production and productivity would decline further," the Consultative Committee of Plantations Association (CCPA) said in a statement.

Tea producers also reiterated that the industry in West Bengal is "under severe financial stress" as tea prices over the last many years have remained stagnant and have not kept pace with the rising cost of production.

"Unless price realisations and productivity improve, the industry cannot sustainably implement any further enhancement of wage. Moreover, disruptions by way of strikes and gate meetings would aggravate the situation further and make it extremely difficult for the industry to recover on the production front as well as in sustaining the expected quality of tea made and obligations of payments in future," the statement said.

Planters also said it has to be appreciated by all stake holders that the finalisation of minimum wage is only possible after conclusion of the ongoing discussions of the Minimum Wage Advisory Committee and submission of the committee's recommendations to the state government.

As many as 11 meetings of the Minimum Wage Advisory Committee have already been held. The next meeting is scheduled to be held on August 20.

"Workers went for the strike to protest against the government's illogical proposal of minimum wage at Rs 172. We have sought clarification from the government on the basis on which it calculated the proposed minimum wage. Official did not reply," the Forum's Convenor and CITU's General Secretary (Tea sector) told IANS.

He also said, "We also demanded that the government should consider all the components like food, clothing, fuel and electricity, education and social cost in the minimum wage. Unions also urged to consider consumer price index in calculating the wage."

Tea planters, however, said the government has offered to examine all the pressing issues at the next meeting.

Usually, wage agreement for tea workers is executed for a three-year period and the last agreement had expired on March 31, 2017.

In fact, West Bengal government proposed an interim hike of Rs 17.50 to increase the remuneration from Rs 132.50 to Rs 150 with effect from January 1, 2018.

Unions had protested against the "minuscule hike" in the interim measure.

The state also introduced interim payment of compensation on account of savings on the procurement cost of food grains at the rate Rs 9 per day per worker from May 1, 2018.