West Bengal’s Tea Workers Strike and March for their Minimum Wage

The New Trade Union Initiative (NTUI) salutes the striking workers at the tea plantation workers in West Bengal following the call of the Joint Forum’s call for a three day strike and sit-in protest, starting on 7 August 2018 in Siliguri rejecting the arbitrary offer of the government of West Bengal of Rs. 172 as the daily wage for tea plantations. The Joint Forum of Trade Unions, the platform of all unions from the hills as well as the Terai and Dooars regions, has demanded a daily minimum wage of Rs. 240 in addition to food rations, housing, healthcare and education as provided for, under the provisions of the Plantation Labour Act 1951.

The Minimum wage advisory committee set up as a part of the last round of the collective bargaining agreement in the industry was meant to recommend a minimum wage within two years of the last wage agreement of 21 February 2015. The committee, even after, three-and-a-half years and the lapse of the said agreement on 31 March 2017, is yet to submit a proposal.

On 1 January 2018, the West Bengal government arbitrarily without consultation with the trade unions announced an interim increment in wages of Rs. 17.50, increasing the wages from Rs. 132.50 to Rs. 150, which the employers promptly started depositing in the bank accounts of the workers. This was an effort to break the struggle on the ground led by the constituent unions of the Joint Forum of Trade Unions to demand an acceptable minimum wage.

Today in the industry, the average per kilogram price of tea from West Bengal (Rs. 200 in June 2018) is significantly higher than tea from the Southern Indian states (which ranges between Rs.130-150) while the daily wage of tea plantation workers in Kerala is Rs 310, in Karnataka, it is Rs. 263 and in Tamil Nadu, it is Rs 241. In addition, in West Bengal, the minimum wage of unskilled agricultural workers is Rs. 295 and the NREGA wage is Rs. 191 per day, hence the rationale for the proposed wage is not just entirely arbitrary and in the interest of the tea plantation owners.

The NTUI supports the demand of the Joint Forum for a minimum wage of at least Rs. 239 in addition to food rations, housing, healthcare and education and call upon the Government of West Bengal to immediately notify and implement this demand. The NTUI hails and celebrates the courage and determination with which workers from the Darjeeling hills and the Terai and Dooars have marched literally in the tens of thousands to Siliguri to mark their protest.

Gautam Mody

General Secretary