PLANTATION SECTOR Agri-Business

Centre calls meet to ward off labour trouble after Kerala stir

After a strike that lasted over a fortnight, plantation workers in Kerala had last month successfully negotiated an in-principle wage increase.The plantation industry employs about 33 lakh workers and accounts for almost a tenth of India’s total agricultural exports valued at $42 billion.

After a strike that lasted over a fortnight, plantation workers in Kerala had last month successfully negotiated an in-principle wage increase.The plantation industry employs about 33 lakh workers and accounts for almost a tenth of India’s total agricultural exports valued at $42 billion.  

The Centre plans to hold a meeting shortly with the Kerala, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu governments following information about the likelihood of a >recent plantation workers’ wage agitation in Kerala spreading to other States.

Talks are also expected to be held subsequently with State governments in the northeast as there are several plantations in the region, sources in the commerce ministry told T he Hindu. The ministry is the nodal department at the Centre for commodity boards and the plantation sector.

The plantation industry employs about 33 lakh workers and accounts for almost a tenth of India’s total agricultural exports valued at $42 billion. With broad-based labour reforms being a key element of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s economic reform agenda, a widespread agitation among plantation workers at the current juncture could potentially serve to galvanise labour across sectors threatening the government’s plans and pose one more hurdle to the nation’s becalmed export sector. After a strike that lasted over a fortnight, >plantation workers in Munnar had last month negotiated an in-principle wage increase. However, the details — including whether the wage hike would be linked to a specified increase in productivity per worker, as well as the effective period of the agreement — are yet to be worked out. The agitation, which began late September, gained national interest as it was led by a group of women workers (of the Kanan Devan Hills Plantations at Munnar in Kerala). They had demanded an increase in daily wages from Rs. 232 to Rs.500, in addition to a 20 per cent bonus, and went on a strike.

In mid-October, following talks facilitated by the State government, an > agreement was reached between the management and the trade unions. As per the pact, the tea plantation workers are expected to receive a basic daily wage of Rs.301 besides other fringe daily benefits of about Rs.135. Similarly, there would be increases in wages of workers in rubber and cardamom plantations. What is worrying the Centre is the wage disparity that this agreement will create.

The basic daily wages in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka are still in the Rs.220-230 region, while in the northeast they are much lower at about Rs.100-130.

Commerce ministry sources said the Centre has credible information that “trouble (labour unrest) will soon be spreading to Karnataka and Tamil Nadu initially and then to the northeast as the movement seems to have succeeded in Kerala.”

The United Planters’ Association of Southern India (UPASI), the apex body of planters in the region, in a representation to the commerce ministry had claimed that the burden of higher wages could make their business, which are already struggling from the global fall in commodity prices, unsustainable and lead to the closure of many plantations.

Wages account for about 75-80 per cent of the production cost, they said, adding that an increase in this component would make their products uncompetitive.

Following this representation, the commerce ministry got in touch with the labour ministry. The Centre is also considering setting up an expert committee comprising representatives from all stakeholders to look into the possible ramifications of the issue, the sources said. Though the Centre has no direct role in issues relating to land and labour (as these come under the State governments’ purview), the union labour ministry looks into labour-related representations sent to the Centre.

Vijayan Rajes, a former President of UPASI, warned that if the Centre and the concerned State governments do not address the problems of the sector, India — which is currently a net exporter of tea, coffee and spices — could soon become a net importer of these commodities, like it happened with rubber.

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Printable version | Jun 29, 2020 9:41:29 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/business/agri-business/centre-calls-meet-to-ward-off-labour-trouble-after-kerala-stir/article7842674.ece

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