Discussion with Shri Ashok Ghosh, General secretary, UTUC
Save Plantation Workers- Save Plantations- Save Industry- Save Economy- Save Country.
Q. According to you, what are the biggest issues for tea plantation workers?
A. There are four main issues that tea plantation workers of India face. First, the need for a national level minimum wage for plantation workers; second, housing rights and land rights; third, the implementation of the Plantation Labour Act, 1951; and fourth, reopening of closed and abandoned tea gardens.
Q. What is the current status of the fight for fair wages for tea workers?
A. There are four big tea producing states- West Bengal, Assam, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. It is the state government that declares the wages. In Assam, the government declared a minimum wage of Rs.351/day. However, this has not been implemented as the plantations moved a petition, and the government decided to set up a committee to review this. This is still under consideration. The West Bengal government has not declared a minimum wage yet. Three years ago, a committee was formed to come out with a minimum wage, but they are yet to produce a result. In Kerala & Tamil Nadu, the declared minimum wage is above Rs.300/day, but this has not been implemented throughout the state, particularly not in the private sector.
There needs to be a national level minimum wage declared by the central government can be implemented throughout the country. Three consumption units is the standard for calculating minimum wages at a national level, but the level in the tea sector it is just 1.5 consumption units, so the whole calculation goes down.
There have been continuous strikes in West Bengal. The plantation workers went on strike for two days, and there was a one-day general strike. The government has taken the side of the industry, and the workers are fighting both the industry and government. That’s the whole problem. Government should have a say.
Q. What are the biggest problems with the living conditions?
A. The Plantation Labour Act needs to be properly implemented. Workers are being deprived of their legitimate rights- housing, education, drinking water, sanitation, hospitals, etc. There is a big problem with the housing conditions, sanitation, health, education and drinking water. This has many effects, like health of the workers, or disappearances.
Over the past few years, hundreds of young girls (12-20 years old) are disappearing from tea gardens, particularly closed and abandoned tea gardens. They are lured into big cities for domestic work. Low, unlivable wages in tea gardens is an additional factor that makes them want to leave. There have been reports of prostitution too. Trafficking is a big issue.
Wages are linked to fringe benefits, but fringe benefits also are not given, so wages should be raised. Further, fringe benefits are protected by the Act, but this is not implemented properly. State governments have the power to do something about this. Most estate land is leased land, so the state governments should cancel the leases, unless the situation is remedied, or the plantations reopened. But it is the central government that should declare a minimum wage, so state governments are mandated to implement it.
Q. What are health conditions like in the plantations? Is there adequate access to doctors or hospitals?
A. Overall, the situation is not good. As per the Plantation Labour Act, garden hospitals need to be made available to the workers, however the reality is that they are not, and patients are sent to government hospitals.
This is the only organized sector where more than 50% of the work force comprises of women. This is another national-level issue, because maternity benefits need to be given, in compliance with the Plantation Labour Act.
Q. What are the consequences of abandonment and closures of tea gardens?
A. Abandonment is the suspension of work without notice. The management just leaves. As a result, there are a lot of health issues among the workers left behind. Further, starvation related deaths has been a major issue since 2002 too. Around 2002-2003, UTUC & CEC led a fact-finding committee to study closed tea gardens and saw that there was no drinking water, no food, no hospitals, no schools. In our report, we recorded all of this. As of now, starvation death is a major issue in closed and abandoned tea gardens. Due to this, young men and women have also left the area.
Q. How do Trade Unions see the problems of workers engaged in STGs?
A. Small tea growers is a different issue. They are a small group of people who get a small plot of land. Even though there are many STGs, and they take a major role in tea production in India, they are not recognized by the Tea Board or the government, so it is very important that they are recognized.
The Plantation Labour Act should be implemented for STGs also. No one can go beyond the Act. The minimum rights provided by the law should be applicable here as well, because the workers do not get any benefits.
Q. What is the relevance of International Tea Day for you, and do you have a message for ITD 2018?
A. It is all about the workers. Society and the government cannot close their eyes to the workers’ plight. They are also co-sharers in this sector, so the industry cannot afford to close their eyes either. Multinational Companies are the key players in this sector, but they cannot act solely with a profit motive. This is an industry that has engaged more than 10 lakh workers. Their livelihood needs to be given priority by the government.
In 2005, trade unions met during the World Social Forum in Brazil and decided to observe tea day as a workers day- to highlight the demands of the workers. We organized a seminar workshop where we decided to celebrate this every year. I proposed this day, 15th December, to be tea day. This year, it is also going to be observed in Hasimara in the Alipurduar district of West Bengal.
My message is very clear: save plantation workers- save plantations- save industry- save economy- save country.