Tea Industry in Eastern India – How the Interests of Plantation Workers Were Sacrificed

March 21, 2015

Plantation workers interests sacrificed to keep owners happy

By Sushovan Dhar

Introduction

The eastern states of India, Assam and West Bengal, together contribute around 70% of the tea produced in India. Employing 1.2 million workers in around 1,500 tea gardens, this 150 year old industry is also one of the economic pillars of the region. It is estimated that between 6-7 million people depend on the tea industry in the region for their livelihood. The industry is a major foreign exchange earner with volumes of export and the prices rising every year. The domestic market is also expanding fast prompting the Tea Board to forecast that by 2020 India’s tea production would fall short of estimated demands. Though this trend may be good for our current-account deficit economy and for the companies owning plantations, it has hardly any meaning in the lives of the workers. They still remain as the most poorly paid workers in the organized sector. The total wage of a tea plantation worker in the states of Assam and West Bengal is less than any other organized sector workers and in West Bengal this also falls much short of the unorganized sector workers covered by Minimum Wages. For instance, the agricultural workers receive Rupees (Rs) 206 as minimum daily wage while the tea garden workers even after the recent hike are subjected to work at Rs 112.50 per day. Furthermore, the vast majority is engaged as daily rated workers and work on a ‘no work no pay basis’.

West Bengal is the second largest tea growing state in India after Assam and home to the world renowned Darjeeling tea. The state contributes more than 21 per cent to India’s total tea production. North Bengal has about 276 gardens spread out in the Darjeeling hills, Terai and Dooars region with around 4,50,000 workers.

Converted_file_8687c68b

Prominent players in the tea industry in West Bengal are Tata Tea, Williamson Magor Group, Goodricke Group and Duncans Group. The Williamson Magor Group has recently invested US$ 20 million on its facilities to increase its packaged tea business.

The lush green and charming view of the tea estates of North Bengal hide a bleak reality – malnutrition and starvation deaths. More than 100 people have reportedly died in five closed tea gardens since January 2014. However, the current Trinamool Congress (TMC) government in the state, like its predecessor, the Left Front government, refuses to accept them as any such death. Unofficial estimates say that the death toll for the past one and a half decade, of workers and their families, in the closed gardens of Dooars and Terai, may well cross 1,000.

New Wage Agreement

A tripartite agreement with every union (i.e. of CPIM, RSP, Congress, Trinamool Congress (TMC) etc.) except Progressive Plantation Workers Union (PPWU), as signatories was signed on 20th February 2015. The agreement provides for an increase of Rs. 17.50 and Rs. 22.50 for the first year in Dooars/Terai region and Hill region respectively, followed by Rs 10.00 each in next two years consecutively, thereby raising the daily wages of daily rated workers to Rs. 112.50, Rs. 122.50 & Rs. 132.50 from April 2014 to March 2017. Though the tea industry is in the Schedule of Minimum Wages in West Bengal, about 4 decades ago, the unions decided that it was more advantageous to go for an industry level tripartite agreement, as minimum wages were increasing very slowly.

For some years, this was advantageous for the workers , but later with higher rates of inflation, and weakened bargaining power of the unions, wage increases became marginal and tea plantation workers found they were being paid pittance wages. In 2005, things worsened further. In the agreement, wages were increased by only Rs.8 over a three year period. Worst still, wages, for the first time, became productivity linked. Horrifyingly, this defeat came after a long and resolute strike of almost 15 days by the unions, when many workers lost wages for that period. In 2008, again the tripartite agreement could yield only an increase of Rs.14 over three years and in 2011, wages were increased by Rs.28 to reach Rs.95 after three years. In the process, with continuing inflation, the gap between what the workers needed and what they got widened. Between 2003 and 2010, huge numbers of starvation deaths took place, with studies showing that even workers in open gardens were malnourished.

table3sushovan

A comparative study of the previous eight wage agreements since 1987 suggests that on four occasions the hike for the three year period was much lesser than the inflation for the corresponding period. On a couple of occasions the “increment” managed to beat the inflation by a few percentage points. It is amply clear that workers have seen their real wages erode significantly making them one of the worst sufferers at the expense of companies and international consumers. Secondly, the compounded increment for the agreement period (2014-17) is 39.47 which is lower than 41.79 of the previous agreement period (2011-14).

Even, there are debates regarding the calculation of inflation for workers. In India, inflation for workers is measured by the Wholesale Price Index (WPI) which is computed using the wholesale price of a basket of goods. The WPI basket has a number of items that has very little to do with workers’ daily needs. For instance, the WPI keeps a tab of steel prices and the products that are made from it. And it does not account for services of any kind, whether housing, transport or education that impact consumers. Additionally, contribution of food prices to inflation is an important parameter while estimating the impacts of inflation on the workers. A number of studies has shown that food inflation takes a bigger toll on the poor because they spend most of their income on food. Therefore, a higher food inflation reduces the workers’ real income disproportionately since a large part of their budget is tied to food. According to RBI reports

Beginning 2005-06:Q2 till 2012-13:Q4, with the exception of few quarters during 2007-08 and 2011-12, food inflation in terms of wholesale price index (WPI) remained above overall inflation. The quarterly food inflation grew at an average rate of 10.16 per cent during this period compared with 6.76 per cent for overall inflation.

Failed commitments

During this period, other promises also remained on paper. After 33 years of Left rule, the West Bengal government issued a gazette notification declaring a draft minimum wage in August 2010. However, despite the fact that this wage could have been finalised and declared as the minimum wage within three months of the draft notification, this was not done. The Left Front lost power in May 2011, without having made such a declaration. In 2011, it was agreed that modalities for a variable dearness allowance (VDA) would be worked out immediately. However, in the three years between 2011 and 2014, the owners didn’t care to work on this, nor did the TMC government force the owners to abide by the agreement signed by them.

The present agreement has thus been preceded by wage agreements that gave pittance increases, by broken promises and by a draft minimum wage notification that was never finalised. It was in this atmosphere that the United Tea Workers Front (UTWF) was formed to bring together large unions like DTDPLU (Darjeeling Terai Doars Plantation Labour Union) and PTWU (Progressive Tea Workers Union) who were not part of the two existing joint committees of tea workers, the CITU led Coordination Committee and the HMS led Defence Committee. This time from the very beginning of wage negotiations the UTWF was not ready for any paltry lump sum settlement, instead it stuck to the call to incorporate the tea industry within the purview of minimum wages, under Minimum Wages Act, 1948.

Initially, the rest of the unions, especially the CITU led Coordination Committee was emphasizing on Variable Dearness Allowance, but subsequently all unions (including UTWF members) formed the Joint Forum for minimum wages and started demanding it unitedly. Several rounds of tripartite discussions failed. A few months ago, the owners/planters association indicated that they would raise the wages by only Rs. 37.00 in three years. The Government of West Bengal pushed the unions to accept that amount and promised that they would look into the minimum wages matter later. At that point all the unions jointly condemned the proposal and refused, leading to a failure of that round of negotiation. The present agreement, which is being termed a ‘Political Victory’ has been settled after a few months for exactly the same proposed amount. In a situation of frequent starvation deaths and deaths due to malnutrition of the tea workers, what is the political victory achieved by increasing Rupees 10-20 a day when on a national scale all the Central trade unions are demanding a minimum wage of Rs. 15000/- per month? In terms of amount of wage increase this agreement can therefore be termed nothing short of “shocking”.

A questionable victory

Some unions have claimed a victory because the agreement is to remain in force till the wages under Minimum Wage Act came into force. The agreement refers to a government notification, declaring the formation of “a Minimum Wages Advisory Committee for the state of West Bengal to hold enquiries and advise the State Government in the matter of fixing and revising the minimum rates of wages payable to the employees.” The agreement requested this committee to give its report “as early as possible”. No deadline has been mentioned in the agreement for the completion of the Committee’s report and its submission. Nor is there any guarantee that the State Government will accept the advice of the committee and declare a minimum wage. The Minimum Wages Advisory Committee on the other hand has been given a term of two years only. Keeping in mind the history of broken promises in the tea sector, it is little wonder that a section of the workers feels they could be cheated once again.

The Government notified the minimum wage advisory committee on 17th February 2014, three days before the agreement was signed. The agreement therefore did little to add more teeth to this notification to ensure minimum wages in any way.

If an agreed and signed tripartite agreement on VDA can be flouted so easily, we have reason to believe that a separate and de-linked government notification can be easily thrown into the waste paper bin. The signatories of the agreement have said that they shall continue their struggle for implementation of minimum wage. Some of the major unions gave a deputation to the Governor demanding minimum wages just a few days after signing the agreement, which shows that they have little confidence in the agreement they signed. If struggle is the only way to achieve a decent wage, then why did we stop and not carry on with the same unprecedented unity for a few more months? Was there any sign of workers getting tired? Or was the agreement giving us a remarkable rise that would encourage workers for higher struggles? Neither of these is true. So the question still remains – why this agreement? whose interests were served?

It is a shame that the workers remain impoverished and that the collective bargaining process is used for maintaining systemic exploitation in relative and absolute terms. Tea workers earn a pittance of the profits garnered on the open market, especially in foreign countries. In effect, multinationals and local capitalists are equally responsible for the super-exploitation of workers. It is hard to believe that tea workers and their families can sustain on these wages-even if the cost of living is minimal. This collective bargaining process maintains a system of oppression. We must recognize the relative and absolute forms of exploitation among tea workers and all peasants in the region. Relatively speaking they are no better off–in absolute terms they are entrenched in poverty that is reminiscent of serfs in Tsarist Russia or slaves in the United States.

Postscript: The role of the Left and other small left unions

Who is the leader of the tall claim of political victory and successful settlement? It is the CITU, the trade union front of CPIM who did not bother to consider the implementation of minimum wage in the tea-sector in their 34 year long rule in West Bengal. Instead, they have continuously denied the series of starvation deaths of tea workers during their regime. They painted those deaths as natural or due to diseases or due to old age. Now, when they are out of power and similar deaths are taking place one after another, their shameless defence of starvation deaths through a series of lies is being countered by the TMC government in a fashion that was shown by the CPI (M) itself. When CPIM left office in 2011 the daily wages of the tea workers were just Rs. 68. Unfortunately, unions and forces that claim to be struggling are tailing this CPIM. We have no confusion that once again the agreement is signed and settlement is made for a starvation wage.

It is unfortunate, but a fact that unions of CPIML Liberation, SUCI(C), CPIML Kanu Sanyal group and PCC-ML are also part of this agreement. However, they are merely paper unions and represent some tens of workers among few lakhs and therefore have no real claim of things shaping in tea industries. Moreover, both the CPIML Liberation and SUCI(C), who otherwise have some presence in the state and in other parts of the country, are suffering from political frustrations and are taking refuge under the wings of CPIM, both in the state and in the country as a whole.

While for the PCC, the political bankruptcy has reached such a level that it advocates an alliance even with bourgeois forces like the Congress or the TMC in the name of fighting the BJP’s rise. The necessity of an alliance with the bourgeois parties to fight the BJP, while depriving workers of their legitimate dues and rights is highly questionable. Though it is a matter of another debate, one thing is sure for now that it is impossible for these small left organisations to independently hold the flag of class battle high. We believe that this role in the trade union field is merely the outcome of their political decision to trail after the CPI (M) in the name of a bigger left unity even while the CPI (M) is running after the Congress, and all the so-called secular democratic bourgeois parties.