North Bengal: Three-day strike in tea sector

The staff and the sub-staff working in the tea industry of north Bengal have decided to observe a three-day strike from May 31, demanding immediate fixing of minimum wages and salaries, and have hinted that they might resort to an indefinite strike from June 7, along with workers.

“None of the staff and the sub-staff in tea gardens across north Bengal will work from May 31 to June 2. We want tea planters and the state government to fix the minimum wages and salaries for us. Otherwise, they should revive the old system of signing a three-year wage agreement,” said Ashish Basu, joint convener, Staff and Sub-staff Joint Committee.

According to him, the last three-year agreement containing the details of annual hike in wages and salaries was signed in 2015.

“Since then, there have been only interim hikes in wages. The hikes were much less than the usual revision in the pay that we used to get every year according to the agreements. The state government had mentioned in 2015 that the minimum wage would be fixed soon, but no decision has been taken so far. We have little option but to resort to the strike,” said Basu.

In the brew belt of north Bengal, there are around 10,000 staff and sub-staff members who work in the offices, bungalows and factories in different posts in tea gardens.

Last year, an interim hike was provided to them and these days, a sub-staff member earns between Rs 7,000 and Rs 9,000 per month, while a staff member’s salary ranges from Rs 20,000 to Rs 32,000.

“In the past few years, there has been no regular hike in our salaries. That is why a sub-staff member is losing around Rs 6,000 a month while a staff member is losing around Rs 8,000 per month. This has to be changed,” said a senior employee of a tea estate in the Terai.

In January 2021, the wages of tea workers were also revised with an interim hike of Rs 26. Since then, a worker has been earning Rs 202 a day.

The staff and the sub-staff are also planning to go for an indefinite industry-wide strike from June 7 if their demands are not met.

“We also want over three lakh workers to join us as their wages have not been revised either since last year. There is no indication that the minimum wage would be fixed soon,” said a representative of the Joint Committee of Staff and Sub-staff.

While they have announced a three-day strike next week, the Joint Forum — an apex body of over 20 tea trade unions — is also intensifying the demand for a wage hike.

“We will organise a major rally in Siliguri on June 6. We have heard about the decision of the staff and the sub-staff and want them to join hands for a stronger collective bargaining,” Joint Forum convener Ziaul Alam said.

Such moves by the employees and workers have left the tea planters perturbed. They said during the monsoon, production in every tea garden reaches the peak.

“If the employees and the workers take a drastic move like a strike at that time, it would lead to a major loss in production. The industry would lose around one million kilos of tea a day, which if translated to money, would be around Rs 25 crore,” said a tea planter.

Labour minister Becharam Manna said the state government was keen to work out an interim hike for the employees and the workers.

“We are having regular discussions with representatives of the industry, both for the interim hike as well as for fixing the minimum wage. Those who are thinking of strike and agitation should realise that the daily wage was Rs 67 in 2011 and it is Rs 202 now,” he said over phone.