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Amidst lockdown and death, tea garden workers in Bengal demand wages

Workers at a tea garden in West Bengal. Photo: File  

The lockdown for preventing the spread of the coronavirus could not have had come at a worse time for the tea gardens of north Bengal, for it coincided with the flush production of the Darjeeling tea industry. The first flush, which is harvested in March, and the second flush of May, are the biggest source of revenue for the tea gardens of the region, and till a few days ago, despite the lockdown, plucking of tea leaves continued in some gardens.

The Tea Board of India on March 26 issued a circular clearing any confusion on the matter. The notification stated: “All tea gardens in the country are under lockdown and are not operational. Thereby, all stakeholders are advised not to take cognisance of the messages that are going around to the contrary in social media.”

On Monday, when the first COVID-19 death was reported in north Bengal, several tea gardens’ unions demanded that an immediate lockdown was necessary in the tea gardens, but the State government should also ensure that workers were paid their wages. A 44-year old woman, a resident of Kalimpong, died at the North Bengal Medical College and Hospital in the early hours of Monday. She was the second coronavirus casualty in the State.

Workers’ survival

“An immediate lockdown of [tea] gardens is necessary, but with the survival of the workers in mind. We insist that employers should be made to pay full wages for the period of lockdown. As wages in tea gardens are generally paid on a weekly or fortnightly basis, the same procedure should be followed,” read a letter sent to the Chief Secretary of the State.

The letter, sent on behalf of 19 organisations, including several tea garden unions that work for the Right to Food campaign in the State, highlights that West Bengal employs 2.5 to 3 lakh tea garden workers, thus supporting about 10-12 lakh people, and is the backbone of the economy of at least three districts in north Bengal — Darjeeling, Jalpiaguri and Alipurduar.

Right to Food campaigners in the State also made a similar demand in a press release, noting, “Employers should be made to pay full wages for the period of lockdown. In case of default, State Government should pay the wages [and] should recover the amount from employers.” The campaigners said that such an effort would cost the State government ₹176 crore.

‘Below survival’

“Our experience regarding wages in tea gardens has not been good. Unless the State government intervenes, there can be no certainty about our wages, which in the industry have always been much below survival level ,” Binay Karketta, a prominent tea garden union leader based in Alipurduar, said. Mr. Karketta said that wages for a tea garden worker stands at only Rs.176 per day and dependence on the public distribution system could lead to hunger in isolated and farflung tea gardens.

Saman Pathak, general secretary of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), Darjeeling district, admitted that there was some confusion regarding whether the gardens would remain open or closed.

“The industry will suffer but after the [COVID-19] death reported in the day, workers do not want to keep the gardens open. This will lead to further distress in the gardens. Unless the State is going to ensure wages, the situation will get from bad to worse,” Mr. Pathak said.

The CITU leader said that tea gardens have a history of chronic hunger and remain one of the most backward regions of the State, and a total closure may dispel doom.

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Printable version | May 7, 2021 9:54:30 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/amidst-lockdown-and-death-tea-garden-workers-in-west-bengal-demand-wages/article31211401.ece

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