Trade unions see a ploy in deal to reopen Kerala Peerumade Tea

A deal to reopen the Peerumade Tea Company estate after a gap of 13 years has become mired in controversy. A section of trade unions have boycotted the move as they suspect that the deal signed in Thiruvanathapuram recently is a ploy to lease out the estate and will work to the disadvantage of the workers.

On October 19, almost all the workers boycotted the payment of arrears, demanding that the back wages and other payments be given in full.

The management recently signed an agreement to sell the green tea leaves to a factory outside and to reopen the estate at a meeting chaired by the Labour Minister and attended by the Labour Commissioner and representatives of all trade unions except the Hill Range Estate Employees’ Association (HREEA), led by the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU).

However, most workers are unaware of the content of the settlement. Last Tuesday, workers affiliated to some trade unions boycotted the reopening move and plucked the green leaves under the banner of the trade unions.

When the deal was being signed, the HREEA had demanded that prior to the reopening, all dues, including wage arrears and benefits, be paid. It then approached the Kerala High Court alleging a move to lease out the estate.

P.S. Rajan, CITU district president and general secretary of HREEA, said Rs 1.4 crore was needed to be paid as arrears. The present move was to lease out the estate to escape a provision in the amended Tea Act that estate lying closed for 10 years could be acquired by the government.

E.S. Bijimol, Peerumade MLA, said it was a welcome move to reopen the estate. But all dues of the workers needed to be settled first.

The estate had nearly 1,000 labourers on its roll when the management closed it when a crisis hit the tea sector in the past decade. Over 3,000 people had indirect employment. It was one of the main estates in Peerumade taluk and had two divisions: Cheenthalar and Lonetree.

The two main factories of the two divisions have been ruined after falling into disuse. The tea plants were damaged or destroyed.

The local trade unions had made an arrangement to provide livelihood to the permanent workers by allowing them to pluck the leaves. They were paid by selling the leaves.

Many permanent employees returned to their villages in Tamil Nadu or sought work in the construction sector in the neighbouring districts. The news of reopening of the estate had raised the hopes of the workers. Now their spirits have been dampened.

“We cannot allow leasing out the estate to a new owner under the garb of reopening the estate. We want all arrears and dues settled prior to the reopening of the estate,” says M. Murukesan, who had come from Cumbom in Tamil Nadu hearing about the reopening of the estate. His father and mother were on the roll of the estate.

Chivas, an autorikshaw driver whose parents were workers in the estate, asked: “How we can allow someone to open the estate, which is close to our hearts? We had been suffering for quite a long time and we need our arrears to be settled. Let there be an honourable settlement.”

“We all are in favour of reopening the estate,” said Muthuswami, a worker.

Company stand

Ramakrishna Sarma, chairman of Peermade Tea Company Ltd., told The Hindu over the phone that there was an ill motive to prevent the reopening of the estate. Workers were not against the move, but some lobby that had encroached up on the estate land and timber smugglers were misleading them.

He said it was agreed up on by all eight trade unions except one to sell the tea leaves to another estate factory till the normalisation of the situation. It was unfortunate that the workers were being misguided.

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