Trade unions in tea gardens are filing police complaints against violation of the government’s lockdown orders, including payment of wages and salary, to contain the spread of Covid-19.

Union leaders, mostly associated with Joint Forum, a conglomeration of over 23 unions associated with the tea industry, have decided to lodge complaints on violation of Clause (IV) of the order of the Chief Secretary issued on 29 March 2020 and Clause (III) of the order of Government of India issued on 29 March.

Spokesperson of Joint Forum Zia ul Alam said : “The entire scenario will be clear next week and we would start appealing to the district magistrates and superintendents of police with copies of the complaints lodged at police stations.”

The programme is taken up by operating trade unions in 62 tea gardens in Alipurduar district, 82 in Jalpaiguri and 86 in Darjeeling district. Mr Alam also claimed that the state government’s last order seemed to be ‘childish’ and most ‘negligent deal’ on the part of the state government regarding the lives of tea workmen during this ‘crucial’ Covid-19 situation.

Following several requests from tea garden owners, CM Mamata Banerjee yesterday agreed to allow planters to begin operations in tea gardens in north Bengal.

In an order, Chief Secretary Rajiva Sinha said: “It is further certified that operations including plucking in tea garden is allowed with deployment up to 25 percent of total regular workforce at a time.” “Norms of social distancing and proper hygiene practices must be ensured,” the order said.

The state government initially exempted the gardens for spraying and irrigation, then exempted 15 percent of regular workers for skiffing. “No enforcement authority is working in and around tea garden areas of the state for implementation of Covid- 19 related norms on social distancing, hygiene, and disbursement of full wages/salaries for lockdown days,” Joint Forum leader Zia ul Alam alleged.

“The government has entrusted employers to maintain all these provisions, but not a single resident of tea gardens has so far been tested for Covid- 19. Medical personnel in tea gardens are also not equipped with protection gear and they lack training,” he added.

Garden-level trade union leaders have been asked to talk directly to managers and keep a watch on clear notifications on payment of wages/salaries in full for all categories of workmen for the days of the lockdown, irrespective of their duties.

“No workman can be forced to work at the present circumstances. We have asked garden-level leaders to keep records of all payments,” he added.

On the other hand, several managers issued notifications and said: “In spite of the aforesaid financial crisis, or order to enable the workers, staffs, and sub staffs to meet their basic needs, the management has decided to provide an ad- hoc advance equivalent to 70 percent of the monthly salary and for permanent daily rated workers– actual wages as per earning of the period 16 March to 24 March and additional ad hoc of Rs 500 per worker per week from 25 March to 31 March 2020.”

Notably, the managements have not considered casual and temporary workers and are allegedly trying to bypass a government order issued as per the Disaster Management Act, though no employer can withhold or deny the wages to the employees or terminate their services on the pretext of the lockdown.

Significantly, an owner of a tea garden in Darjeeling Hills, Kishori Agarwal, today wrote to the Gorkhaland Territorial Administration (GTA) chairman, Anit Thapa, and sought his cooperation to continue operations in tea gardens, following the state government’s order.

“We have paid workers in advance. Darjeeling Tea Association (DTA) as well as the Consultative Committee of Plantation Associations (CCPA) would decide on the payment of staff, sub staff and workers during the lockdown,” Mr Agarwal said.