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Bimal Gurung in tea wage talks to get an interim hike for hill workers

Bimal Gurung
Bimal Gurung's decision to intervene in tea wage talks to get an interim hike for hill workers, instead of waiting for a minimum wage to be fixed, has the potential to cause fissures in a group of 23 unions fighting for the pay hike and minimum wage, some union leaders said today.

All operating trade unions in north Bengal, except that of the Trinamul, have come together under the banner of the Joint Forum to demand a minimum wage for the tea industry. The more immediate issue is that of wage revision, which is due since April 1.

Gurung seemed peeved yesterday with the delay in the negotiations for the wage hike.

"I will call all tea garden owners in Darjeeling for a meeting and I will personally attend a meeting on wage revision. I will take at the most two meetings to settle this issue," Gurung told a public meeting at Darjeeling Motor Stand yesterday.

Lambasting tea planters, Gurung said: "Right now we are building roads in tea gardens, providing drinking water and the GTA will also start constructing 1,000 houses under the Hamro Ghar (my house) scheme. We will provide Rs 1.6 lakh for the housing schemes. Earlier, it was the duty of the tea garden to build roads, provide drinking facilities and housing. Does the management now even want us to distribute rain coats and carry baskets?" asked Gurung.

So far, six rounds of talks among unions, planters' representatives and the state government have been held on the wage hike. The government has called another tripartite meeting in Siliguri on December 12.

In 2011, unions in the Darjeeling hills, largely with the backing of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, had managed a wage hike of Rs 23. The daily wage of garden workers in the hills was increased from Rs 67 to Rs 90. There are 86 tea gardens in the hills, employing 55,000 permanent workers.

Following the decision taken by the Darjeeling tea industry, trade unions in the plains were under pressure to settle the issue as early as possible. The daily wage of tea garden labourers in the plains was raised from Rs 67 to Rs 85 for the 2001-2012 financial year, and then to Rs 90 and Rs 95 in the following two fiscals.

Asked if Gurung's decision would threaten the unity of the Joint Forum, Suraj Subba, the general secretary of the Morcha-affiliated Darjeeling Terai Dooars Plantation Labour Union, said: "We will not budge from our demand of fixing a minimum wage. However, since this involves passing a bill in the Assembly, the entire process may take time. Gurung is trying to hint that there should be an interim hike."

Senior tea trade union leaders who represent the Joint Forum, however, said Gurung's decision would affect the unity of their movement over the wage issue.

"We have not received any formal communication from the Morcha's union, which is a constituent of the Joint Forum. But we would like to assert that the next tripartite meeting on wages is scheduled for December 12 and any such decision to negotiate separately with tea planters and fix the wage hike for workers on the tea estates of the hills would largely affect the unity of our movement," said Chitta Dey, convener of the Coordination Committee of Tea Plantation Workers.

"Such a decision will weaken our bargaining power, particularly at a time we could put the pressure on the government to fix the minimum wages for the tea industry. Planters also now know all trade unions are not ready to accept a paltry wage hike," he added.

Ziaur Alam, the Jalpaiguri district secretary of the Citu, and a leader of the Joint Forum, echoed Dey.

"We want a single agreement to be signed as far as the wage revision is concerned. Any trade union can hold talks with planters' representatives and we, too, are ready to participate in talks. But that does not mean we will go ahead and sign an agreement on wage revision. We are a constituent union of the Joint Forum and would always insist on a joint step," Alam said.

Trinamul tea trade union leaders, who are opposing the Joint Forum's decision not to discuss the revision of wages unless the government formed a committee on the minimum wage, said workers were being deprived of wage hike.

"Time and again, we have said such a stance would ultimately affect the workers, who are deprived of revised wages for months. The state has already decided to form a committee on minimum wage and yet, these trade unions are not ready to budge from their stance," a leader representing Trinamul Tea Plantation Workers' Union, said.

S.S. Bagoria, chairman, Darjeeling Tea Association, said over the phone from Calcutta: "I have not heard anything about Gurung's statement."

The Telegraph

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