By B. Sivaraman
The three-day strike by the tea workers of West Bengal on 7–9 August 2018 posed several questions: What exactly was the strike by 29 unions intended to achieve and what exactly did it achieve?
Rejecting the West Bengal Labour Secretary’s shocking offer of a destitute wage of Rs.172 per day as “minimum wage”, announced arbitrarily and not in conformity with the legally stipulated process, the unions declared the 3-day strike in Terai-Dooars belt. But they have not yet succeeded in ushering in a wage revision regime as per the Minimum Wages Act nor did they achieve their wage demand of Rs.239. So why was the strike limited to three days only and not extended into an indefinite one for a fight to the finish? In all probability, it could well be a warming-up exercise for a major showdown in the near future.
In West Bengal, successive governments invoked some provisions in the Plantation Labour Act 1951 and West Bengal Plantation Labour Rules 1955 to illegally deny applicability of the otherwise overriding Minimum Wages Act in the tea sector and instead resorted to tripartite negotiations to arrive at 3-year wage agreements. But during the last tripartite agreement in 2015, it was informally agreed by all that it would be the last such agreement and henceforth wages would be fixed as per the Minimum Wage Act. Accordingly, a Minimum Wage Advisory Committee was constituted by the Government in 2015 but the government managed to keep it in limbo and even before that Minimum Wage Advisory Committee could come up with any recommendation, on August 6, the Labour Secretary was trying to pass off an arbitrary wage of Rs.172 as “minimum wage” when the minimum wages for tea workers in Tamil Nadu is Rs.303, in Karnataka Rs.317 and in Kerala Rs.513?
If one visits the official site of Tea Board, one can see that tea prices are going up, exports are on the rise and profits of tea companies are booming in recent years. On the other hand, one hears of starvation deaths among tea garden workers and their Dickensian working conditions. Activist Dr.Binayak Sen has shown that 40% of the tea workers in West Bengal have a Body Mass Index of less than 18.5, a sign of acute malnutrition. Numerous gardens have been closed. Is it really because of a structural crisis? The glitzy City Center Mall, which came up on the lands of the closed Chandmoni Tea Garden in Darjeeling and over the graves of two workers who were shot during protests against this conversion, best symbolises the metamorphosis of capital invested in tea plantations into more profitable avenues. Many gardens are being closed only to convert them into lucrative resorts and golf courses.
It is no surprise that at odds with her all-India ambitions of heading an alternative coalition against the Modi government, Mamata Banerjee lets her government adopt a brazen anti-worker stance on the wage issue of nearly 5 lakh workers. After all, when it comes to choosing between populist pressures and neo-liberal choices, the rightwing populists all over the world have always shown their preference for neo-liberal priorities. so, populism can be a major obstruction for popular causes.
The CPI(M) owes an answer as to why, unlike their Kerala comrades, they could not usher in the practice of minimum wages in the largest industry in west Bengal when they ruled. CITU, the mighty left union, proved to be too nimble-footed to turn the tables against Mamata on tea wage fixation over the past 4 years thanks mainly to their leaders losing the connect with the workers. Still Saman Pathak, the CITU leader of tea workers, sounded determined when he said, “we are going to make it a fight till the end”.
Incidentally, the tea workers in the neighbouring state of Assam have announced an indefinite strike from 20 August as the BJP chief minister did not meet their deadline of 14 August to accept of the recommendation of the minimum wage advisory committee of Assam for a minimum wage of Rs.351. Mamata’s government also failed to respond to the workers’ demand of Rs.239 minimum wage at the 13 August tripartite meeting. Thus, if the prospects for a synchronised strike by tea workers of the two major tea producing states become a reality, Mamata’s manoeuvres to keep the tea barons in good humour would hardly matter.(IPA Service)