The Bitter Plight of Bengal's Tea Garden Workers -Tanmoy Bhaduri
Tea plantations are touted as the country's second largest employer, but as many of them shut down, workers are being cheated by agents who exploit and traffick them.
The once-thriving tea gardens in the fertile Dooars region of West Bengal have now fallen on hard times. The tea industry is touted as the country’s second largest employer, but also an industry that undermines labour rights and deprives workers and their families of the most basic needs. There’s widespread poverty, malnutrition, human trafficking and starvation death: obvious factors underscoring the desire for a better life. The availability of basic facilities like healthcare and education is also poor.
It was during the mid-1990s when small growers began to flood the tea market emerging out of the Dooars region. As per data published by Tea Board of India, the number of tea plantations in North India (which includes West Bengal, Assam and all the North-Eastern states) jumped from 3,141 in 1994 to 36,836 in 1999. In the Dooars alone, this number jumped from 168 to 532 during this period, rendering the cost structures of these major plantations unviable.
Workers’ plight and state’s apathy
Tea garden workers in Dooars have been demanding revision of minimum wages. Nearly three lakh workers in North Bengal called a three-day strike in August. Right now, a worker gets a daily wage of Rs 159. After several meetings with the joint forum of trade unions, the state labour department issued a notification on August 29, saying tea workers will have to be paid at an enhanced rate. The wage rate has to be increased by Rs 10 from September 1 and by Rs 7 from October 1, which means, the new wage will be Rs 176 per day. This is an interim measure to help the workers until the minimum wage rate is finalised, says the order. Mohan Sharma, president, Cha Bagan Trinamool Congress Mazdoor Union, said they welcome the decision. “This proves the state’s sincerity for the tea workers.” However, trade unions affiliated with CPI(M), RSP, Forward Bloc, Congress, GJM (Bimal Gurung faction), GNLF, CPRM, Jan Andolan Party and many others also part of the joint forum, insist on fixation of minimum wage as they feel interim measures cannot eventually resolve any problem.
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TheWire.in, 1 October, 2018, https://thewire.in/rights/bengal-tea-gardens-workers-rights