The country’s plantation industry has been increasingly using casual labour owing to the high social cost of employing permanent and resident labourers, a recent study has found.
The sector has been bearing “enormous social cost” in view of the statutory provisions under the Plantations Labour Act (PLA), 1951. The percentage share of statutory benefits in the total wages amounts to 76, 65 and 70, respectively, in Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, the study said.
The Indian Council of Social Science Research-sponsored study on plantations, conducted by Malini L. Tantri, assistant professor, Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bengaluru, said the sector’s competitiveness was eroded in South Indian tea plantations because of the high statutory minimum wages for resident labourers.
In the case of Nilgiris, the share of resident labour in the total tea plantation labour declined from 72.8% in 1971 to 55.2% in 2004. The share of temporary labour increased from 25.3% to 39.6% in the same period, the study found.
Over the years, the nature of employment in the plantation sector has been changing towards casual or temporary employment, thereby limiting the size of labour availing benefits under the PLA. Under the Act, it is mandatory for the employer to provide a bunch of statutory (both health and welfare) facilities to permanent and residential labourers, without any contributions from the government and labourer.
On an average, the social cost per hectare borne by the industry amounts to ₹22,000 for the Nilgiris region, the study noted. “These circumstances are pushing plantation owners to finding alternative options such as opting for more temporary or casual labour vis-a-vis permanent labour and substituting capital for labour, specifically female employment on the field like plucking and collecting of green leaf,” the study said.
A total of 3,747 estates or plantations were registered under the PLA in 2012, with 1,557 tea estates. The industry has not been able to provide housing and medial facilities to its employees owing to high social costs. In nine plantation States of India, only 64.17% of the total eligible (4,11,831) workers have been provided housing.
West Bengal, despite being a traditional plantation-growing State, has been found to be the worst among all the States providing housing (3.36% of the eligible 98,729 workers). Although Assam has covered 83.05% of the eligible workers with housing, it is faced with a shortage of 37,893 houses.
On the maternity benefit front, in 2011, out of 3,119 plantations, 51.94% submitted returns with daily women workers numbering 7,93,360. Out of these, 29,123 (3.67%) women workers claimed maternity benefits, Dr. Malini said.
Out of the 22 coffee estates surveyed in Karnataka, only 4.5% units provided medical facilities, and shockingly only one medical officer was deputed for all 22 units.