On 11 July 1999, 300,000 full-time and 50,000 part-time workers went on indefinite strike in the Dooars, Terai and Darjeeling regions in West Bengal, where 104,000 hectares of tea gardens produce almost 22% of India’s tea. Production lost per day of strike action amounted to 500,000 kg of tea. Companies affected by the strike include Goodricke, Duncans, Tata Tea, Eveready, Warren, Jay Shree. The workers were demanding that a minimum quota of 1.2 workers should be allocated to each acre, with a view to increasing the number of permanent jobs available in the plantations, as well as the establishment of local hospitals.
The employers, of course, prefer to use casual workers to meet productivity needs, since the amount of work needed in the gardens is at its highest in July, August and September, and they do not want to pay even their meagre starvation wages to more than a minimum number of workers the whole year round.
The Hindu of 6 August 1999 reports on the findings of a fact-finding exercise conducted by a group of leading trade unions – including the AITUC, HMS and the AICCTU, to examine the wage structure and living conditions of the tea plantation workers. According to
The Hindu, “The report exposes how 850,000 workers in Assam and 300,000 workers in the Terai and Dooars regions of West Bengal live and work exclusively for their plantations practically from their birth till death. In other words, they are the ‘captives’ of tea garden owners without any freedom to change their place of work.
Such is the stranglehold of the planters that their tea estates have become their sort of own little kingdoms where almost a dictatorial atmosphere prevails …
“Addressing a joint press-briefing here,[New Delhi]
Mr J John, Executive Director of the Centre for Education and Communication – one of the key organisations behind the study – said, despite making huge profits, the tea growers and managers are not investing the surplus in the region for developing either the general infrastructure or other allied industries or into educational or health development.”
In Assam, the report blames the monopoly of one union, the INTUC-backed Assam Cha Mazdoor Sangh, for complacency leading to the fact that Assam workers are paid only Rs 31.60 a day (compared to Rs 61 a day in Kerala, say). The situation, however, is also dire in West Bengal where daily wages average Rs 32.60.
In general, “
From a basic issue of non-availability of potable water in the tea growing regions, Mr John pointed out, every provision of the Plantation Labour Act, 1951 – housing, education, sanitary amenities, canteens, crèches, medical facilities, recreational facilities – is violated with impunity by the tea garden managements.”
The employers claimed the Bengal workers’ demands were totally unrealistic, and even had the cheek to suggest that workers did not pull their weight, saying that the reason casual workers are employed at all at the estates is because the permanent tea workers engage in absenteeism and, even when deigning to turn up for work,
“more often than not they pluck 50 percent of the required quantities but arm-twist management into paying the full wage”.
It does make one wonder how the workers have been unable to
a living wage out of their employers!
In the short term it would appear that the gardens are feeling the effect of accumulated overproduction, for in some of the gardens the cost of production has now outstripped auction prices owing to a sharp drop in demand both domestically and in the export market. A crop shortage this year is not causing a corresponding price rise because of the existence of a carry over of stock of about 36 million kg.
Outcome of the strike
While there may be short periods when certain tea gardens operate at a loss, nevertheless we are not told what long-term prospects are, for instance when the 36 million kg have been absorbed and the shortages begin to be felt, when one assumes the price will go through the roof and the owners of the tea estates will pocket huge profits. They never complain about those times.
At any rate, it turned out that they were after all disposed to strike a deal with the workers rather than close down their allegedly unprofitable operations. Through the mediation of West Bengal Chief Minister, Jyoti Basu, agreement was reached that 10,000 more permanent jobs would be created in the West Bengal region. Other demands have, according to
Business Line Asia Intelligence Wire,
22 July 1999, been remitted to ‘investigation’:
“On the demand for setting up group hospitals, the owners acknowledged their obligations but cited some ‘technical difficulties’ in raising sufficient funds. However, in order to draw up a time-bound and practicable course of action in this regard it was decided that the medical advisory board would re-examine this issue and submit its recommendations by November 30.” [By which time, no doubt, the employers hope everybody will have forgotten all about it].
“Regarding the implementation of various welfare measures for the workers, it was resolved that the State Government shall improve the inspection system initiating prosecutions wherever necessary.”
Despite this partial victory, the workers will not be compensated for their loss of earnings in the 11 days they were on strike, a loss they will have to bear even though they stood personally to gain nothing.