West Bengal tea plantation workers abandoned by the political parties

 The governments changed hands but living and working conditions of tea workers remains same

The state assembly elections in West Bengal are underway. BJP is trying to dethrone the ruling TMC in seven phased elections. TMC is ruling West Bengal for 10 years. Before TMC came into power, Communist Party of India Marxist (CPI-M) led Left Government ruled Bengal for more than three decades.

No hopes in the elections

Every political party makes promises during the election campaign but only to break these promises after taking power. The political parties in West Bengal broke these promises with tea plantation workers so many times that they feel betrayed by the politicians.

They have lost their hopes. The governments change hands but their living and working conditions never changed. Low wages, hazardous work conditions and ‘hollow promises’ have left workers disillusioned. 

The more than 3,00,000 (0.3 million) permanent and thousands of daily wage workers in West Bengal’s tea belt, also called the Dorai-Tarai hill tract, care little about which political party wins the ongoing state legislative assembly elections. 

Their problems are plenty. Their wages need to be increased and they need proper schools and healthcare facilities. But they have no hopes from these elections. They have seen the Bharatiya Janata Party at the Centre and chief minister Mamata Banerjee at the state level. Nobody has done anything for them.

No matter how many governments changed, the condition of the workers engaged in more than 300 tea estates across Darjeeling, Alipurduar, Kurseong and Jalpaiguri barely improved. 

Super exploitation and low wages

What every exquisite cup of tea fails to narrate is the plight and agony of those workers who have been heavily exploited and marginalized for generations. Beyond the romanticised notions of the beautiful hills and tea estates, the “the two leaves and a bud”, and the “cheerful faces of its people”, what remains invisible is the ugly truth of sub-human wages and living conditions, denial of basic rights of workers, more than a thousand starvation deaths and seething anger.

Every tea garden you would visit in free India echoes the cries of labourers who have been bonded and forced to work on paltry wages. Among many such are the tea gardens of Darjeeling and Dooars whose scenic beauty and unparalleled flavour of tea have gained world reputation, whereas the state of the livelihoods of workers (especially tea-garden labourers) suffering perennial misery and insecurity remain unheard and ignored. The region has remained in grip of the predatory claws of imperialism and colonization which has obscenely exploited its resources, both natural and human in the worst forms.

Absence of workers’ rights, non-payment of minimum wages and benefits is not specific to the tea-industry alone but is rather a persistent feature of work in the highly segment labour-market in India.

 However, it is pertinent to highlight here the regional aspects of discrimination that are visible in the tea industry. The minimum wage paid to unskilled tea labour in Kerala is Rs.254, in Tamil Nadu it is Rs 209, in Karnataka it is Rs 228, in neighbouring Sikkim it is Rs. 220 while the same in Darjeeling comes to a meagre Rs112.5. Even the minimum wage paid in West Bengal for MGNREGA is around Rs. 130-151 and for agricultural labourers is Rs. 206 per day.

The tea workers in North Bengal are thus made to work for wages which are far below the minimum in any form of work. It is very shrewd on the part of the owners to claim that low wages are due to low price being earned from the sales of tea leaves produced from these gardens. 

Since the early 2000s, large-scale out-migration of the male population, triggered by abysmally low wages and the closure of several tea gardens, significantly altered the socio-economic dynamics of the region.

The men began to migrate to other areas mostly to cities in search of livelihood. The women, who were previously relegated to the fields and were systematically, denied promotion, started entering factories as skilled labour.

The shrinking workforce also exerted considerable pressure on companies to increase workers’ wage from Rs 45 per day in 2000 to Rs 202 per day in 2021. But the lives of tea plantation workers continue to be deplorable.

While it may seem like workers’ wages have increased but when viewed with the increasing price of commodities, they are still unable to afford nutritious food, healthcare facilities and education for their children.

They also rarely receive their wages on time. Last year, when the whole country was under lockdown, the labour leaders forced them to keep working in the fields. But to date, they have not received the full payment for their work.

The irony of this situation is lies in the presence of stark poverty, chronic hunger and exploitation alongside the colossal profits these tea-gardens generate for the owners and the State. According to an estimate by the Darjeeling Chamber of Commerce, tea industry in the hills generates an average revenue of Rs 4.5 billion annually, equal to that of the tourism industry in the region.

Non-implementation of labour laws

The revised wage rate for tea plantation workers is lower than the state’s MGNREGA wage rate of Rs 204. Historically, employers have justified the paltry wages with the claim that the workers are remunerated in cash and kind.

According to the Plantation Labour Act (PLA), 1951, Tea plantation workers are entitled to subsidised ration for their spouse and two dependent children, along with housing facilities, education for their children, cooking fuel, safe drinking water, health care facilities, and creches for their children and transportation. However, the PLA remains largely un-implemented.

As one tea plantation worker explained that “ideally, we should receive ration twice a month. But we only receive it once a month, if at all. Moreover, the condition of our healthcare centres is so bad that if you go to see a doctor in the morning, nobody will come to see you until late evening. The health centres in the area we live have no doctors and are run by medical representatives.

The workers are also entitled to provident fund and gratuity. But several tea gardens allegedly default on depositing the amount deducted from workers’ wages to their provident funds. Thus, they cannot avail these benefits upon retirement.

Longer working hours

The women, who entered the factories in large numbers, found themselves working long hours in perilous conditions. Earlier, women used to work eight hours in the field but after entering the factories they have to work for 10-12 hours at a stretch.

The factory workers are also exposed to serious injuries and are exposed to harmful chemicals and toxic waste, she added. “They don’t receive adequate masks or gloves to protect themselves. Medical benefits are also not offered by the companies.”

The betrayal of union leaders

The workers’ unions are several but their presence is weak, complained Abhijeet Roy, General Secretary of North Bengal Tea Plantation Employees’ Union. He said:

“The tea gardens have around 300,000 permanent workers — a great number that was never adequately mobilised by unions to put legitimate pressure on companies to improve workers’ living conditions. Further, companies often try to silence union leaders through bribes.

Key positions within unions are rarely occupied by workers, and as a result, they have minimal decision-making power, added Roy. “Women and adivasi people form the majority of their members but they are missing from the central leadership.”

Successive state governments lacked the political will to set a minimum wage for tea plantation workers based on a scientific method, activists complained.

                                                             Rukhsana Manzoor Deputy Editor           


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