North Bengal: Irregularities continue in Darjeeling hill tea gardens even after handover of ownership

September 29, 2016

Irregularities continue in Darjeeling hill tea gardens even after handover of ownership

— A report by Chaaybagan Sangram Samity. A previous report and background is available here.

On September 2015, exactly one year ago, the management of the Alchemist Group owned tea gardens in Darjeeling (namely Dooteriah, Kalej Valley and Peshok) started to show irregularities regarding payment of wages to the workers. Now, September is the month before the festival of Dasain. Hence the bonus for festivals is distributed mostly at the end of September or beginning of October.

The irregularities went on and payment totally stopped on December 2015. From then onwards the workers of the Alchemist-owned tea garden were not paid with any wages and the proper functioning of the gardens also remained suspended. This farcical situation continued till August 2016. On 12 August 2016, a meeting was held at the Joint Labour Commissioner’s office at Siliguri among the representative of the Alchemist Group, different trade unions, and the JLC. Several such meetings were held earlier too, in which the owners promised to pay the dues, but later denied to do so. In the meantime, workers carried out their agitations, knocked the doors of several big shots, appealed the government to resolve the problem, with the hope that their dues would be cleared and functioning of the gardens would start normally. But all were in vein.

On 12 August meeting at the JLC office, the owner of the Trident group of industries was also present, who said that they are willing to buy the said tea gardens. Surprisingly, the deal and the agreement were done in that very meeting within a very short period of time and without following proper procedure. It should be noted that this sort of agreements regarding handover is supposed to be done in presence of District Magistrate, not the Labour Commissioner. Any how, the trade unions were willing, and same was the owner of the Trident group. Hence the agreement was done. The main points in the agreement was: 1) The current wages of the working labourers will be paid. 2) The liabilities will be paid in 12 installments. 3) The tea gardens will function properly.

So, on 19 September 2016, we went to Dooteriah to inquire about the present situation. We found that the irregularity on wages had already started. The wage of two weeks back had just arrived that day. After talking to the staffs, some workers and the Assistant Manager, we came to know that, the condition of the tea garden was same as earlier. At the very first phase after handover, the payments were properly given. Those who went to work got the wages and the staffs were paid in advance half the salary. But even before a month passed, the irregularities started. The things like change of owner and the functioning of the management are not clear to the workers, even to the staffs and to the General Manager. So there is no transparency in the whole process of transfer of the owner. Even the whole management is in confusion. The C.E.O of Alchemist Group, Mr Sujit Bhattacharya is still working. Ujjwal Ghosh, a representative of Trident group came at the bungalow of the tea garden some days back, where they had a meeting with some selected Trade Unions and the matter of the meeting is still unknown to the workers and staffs.

Hence, everyone in the tea garden is confused and apprehensive about the change of the ownership. Workers are waiting for the festival-bonus, as according to them the payment of bonus is the acid-test to understand the fate of their tea garden for now. It is so, because if the new owner pays them the bonus, then it can be assumed that the new owners are really going to run the tea garden. But if they don’t, then the situation can be assumed to be the same as earlier. Hence the workers and the staffs are passing days in anxiety as before!