A tripartite meeting held with a view to addressing grievances of workers in tea plantations ended inconclusively yet again on Wednesday. However, the state labour department announced that a meeting of the minimum wages advisory committee will be held in Kolkata on 12 July, while another tripartite meeting will be held on 17 July at Uttarkanya here.
The department had called for Wednesday’s meeting at Uttarkanya in a short notice, to “pacify a section of trade unions,” which has called a three-day industrial strike, demanding implementation of the Minimum Wages Act in the tea sector.
Though labour commissioner Jawaid Akhtar announced in the meeting on Wednesday that the meeting of the advisory committee will be held in Kolkata, a large section of trade unions under the banner of the Joint Forum are determined to go ahead with their protest plans, including a three-day strike in the tea industry, and a general strike on 25 July. Mr Akhtar also urged the Joint Forum to call off the strike, as dialogue continues and workers are getting an interim wage of Rs 159 a day, including the value of ration.
“The last meeting of the Minimum Wage Advisory Committee was held on 12 March. The next meeting will be held in Kolkata on 12 July,” Mr Akhtar told reporters after the meeting.
“We discuss a lot about wages in all meetings, but besides the wages, there are so many other important subjects. To discuss more such issues, we have decided to call another tripartite meeting at Uttarkanya on 17 July,” he said, adding, “We have asked a section of the trade unions to call off the strike and maintain peace in tea plantations so that such strikes do not hamper tea production.”
Notably, representatives of the Darjeeling Tea Association urged trade union leaders to keep the tea belt in the Hills out of the purview of the agitation and strike.
Asked to comment on the workers’ stand, the spokesperson for the Joint Forum, Zia ul Alam, said: “The meeting on Wednesday did not produce results. We have decided to go ahead with the three-day industrial strike from 23 July and serve notices to authorities on 9 July, by keeping Darjeeling and Kalimpong tea belts out of the purview of the strike, considering the social, political and present industrial situation.”
“The state labour commissioner wanted to do something better today, but the employers’ stand was not in favour of labourers. We will keep a close watch on the outcome of two meetings to be held on 12 and 17 July. If we find positive outcome, we will rethink on our decisions. But if there is no output, the 4.5 lakh workers will go on a strike in the tea belt in north Bengal,” Mr Alam added.
Notably, the Trinamul Congress-backed trade unions have opposed the decision to call the strike. “We have requested the labour commissioner so that the state government can take up the matter and call off the strike, as discussions are going on. If the government informs them, we can make up for the losses incurred in the ongoing agitation. Meetings for minimum wages were held several times. We attended all meetings,” said the Secretary General of the Tea Association of India, PK Bhattacharya.
“When the issue is minimum wages, why are they going to launch an agitation? We hope the government will look into the matter and agitators will respond positively,” Mr Bhattacharya said.
Principal advisor to the Darjeeling Tea Association, Sandeep Mukherjee, said that at least 65 percent of the Darjeeling tea that is produced is exported.
“Because of strikes in the past, and the long period of strike in Darjeeling last year, Darjeeling as a tea-exporting source has lost its reliability, due to which 30 per cent of the total export has gone down. As such, trade unions of Darjeeling, by resorting to gate meetings, and threatening to call strikes, and by making uncalled-for statements in local newspapers, all are having an adverse affect, by virtue of which the importers of Darjeeling tea are feeling shaky now,” Mr Mukherjee said.
“The trade union, in trying to further the interests of tea workers and employees of the tea industry of Darjeeling, is doing more harm to them than good. As such, DTA representatives here have made a special appeal that Darjeeling tea industry be left out of the purview of the strike. Because we are yet to recover from that impact of last year’s strike of 104 days,” he added.