Darjeeling: In a rare display of solidarity, residents of Darjeeling in the state of West Bengal kept the entire region shut for nearly 12 hours on Friday following a strike called by local tea workers.
As per sources, a joint forum of tea garden workers’ union in Darjeeling called for the 12-hour total shutdown in demand of a 20% bonus in their wages that has been pending for a long time now. It was also informed that owners of tea estates are refusing to give out the bonus, though it has been a long-pending demand of the workers.
The Darjeeling Planters’ Association (DPA), which comprises nearly 87 tea gardens in the hill district, have over the years cited that the tea companies have allegedly faced a great loss during the 105-day shutdown of Gorkhaland agitation in 2017. The planters association also cited that the Central government has not taken any step so far in granting the owners a financial package to recuperate their losses.
Citing the same problem, the DPA, which comprises tea garden owners, gave a 15% bonus to workers in 2018. However, this year, they said they won’t be able to pay more than 10.5%.
Darjeeling tea garden workers are some of the least paid industrial workers in the country. They are paid a minimum amount of Rs 176 per day for almost nine hours of labour, and they are not included under the Minimum Wages Act, because of which they are deprived of many facilities accorded through it. It is to be mentioned that, the minimum wages for unskilled labourers in West Bengal is Rs 276, but the tea garden workers who are highly skilled get paid much less than this rate and due to which they had to rely on the Dussehra bonus to help them through the festival period. But, so far the tea garden owners don’t seem to be in any mood to relent, claim workers.
Meanwhile, the former chaiman of Gorkhaland Territorial Administration Board (GTAD), BinayTamang, who leads one of the factions of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM), has threatened to undergo an indefinite hunger strike from October 6, if the tea garden owners do not agree upon the 20% bonus as per the demand made by the garden workers.
Releasing a statement on Friday, the former chairman of GTAB expressed that the tea garden workers of the district are already receiving very low wages and if the owner of the gardens do not comply their demand than he along with his organisational members will sit for an indefinite hunger strike from October 6.
Meanwhile preempting the move of GTAD, a group of tea garden unions functioning under the umbrella organisation of Sankuyta Morcha on Friday called for the 12-hour strike in Darjeeling that witnessed spontaneous support from the general public with shop, schools, businesses and vehicles going off in support of the workers.
Blaming the West Bengal government for the present condition of the workers, Darjeeling MP Raju Bista stated that he extends his solidarity and support to all his brothers and sisters who works at tea garden and assured them of a complete support to their cause. Bista also requested the owners of the gardens to pay the 20% bonus and help resolving the deadlock at the earliest.
“Despite being the backbone of world renowned brand ‘Darjeeling’, the tea workers and their rights have continued to be politicised, and this has been the biggest detriment towards providing them with dignified wages and bonus. I want this cycle of politicians exploiting tea garden workers and their rights for furthering their political cause to end,” he added.
Further, blaming the system for condition of the workers, Bista also expressed that even after 72 years of independence of the nation, tea garden workers need to fight for a fair bonus and wages every year while owners have to struggle to make their ends meet which is a reflection on the politicians and the prevalent decision-making system.
“We all need to work together to usher in changes that will help get us the best prices for our tea and highest wages for our workers. Together we can make this happen,” Bista said.