Darjeeling stir may rob tea workers of bonus
Kolkata: With losses due to the indefinite strike called by the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM) mounting to Rs400 crore, tea estates in Darjeeling are likely to withhold payment of festival bonus to their workers. This will affect as many as 90,000 workers and can potentially trigger a spat between local political parties and estate owners.
Every year, tea estates pay bonuses ahead of Durga Puja, but perhaps not this year. Almost all the 87 tea estates in Darjeeling have been closed for more than 80 days and their combined loss is estimated at Rs400 crore, according to Binod Mohan, chairman of the Darjeeling Tea Association—a lobby group for tea estate owners.
Tea estates are required to pay a minimum of 8.33% of total annual wages as bonus. Last year, they paid 19%. The negotiation over bonus payment between workers and estate owners can begin only after the indefinite strike is withdrawn and the gardens reopened, according to Mohan.
Because of the stir, wage negotiations have also been delayed. Revised wages were to come into force from 1 April.
Niraj Zimba, a spokesperson for the Gorkha National Liberation Front, said that estate owners had been making profits year after year and must pay bonus from their accumulated profits. GNLF was the largest party in the region until 2007, when Bimal Gurung broke away to form GJM.
Goodricke Group managing director Arun Singh said plantation owners will need help from the state government and trade unions to deal with this crisis. “Never have gardens been shut for so long,” Singh said. “Some may find it difficult to stay afloat even after the strike is withdrawn.”
Estates in Darjeeling produce 8.5 million kg of tea a year. This year, at least 70% of the crop was lost due to the strike, said Kaushik Basu, general secretary of Darjeeling Tea Association. The most premium and profitable second flush was completely lost, he added.
Even if the strike is withdrawn immediately, it is unlikely that estates in Darjeeling will produce any tea at all before 2017 is out. Gardens will need at least two months to clean up and restore the bushes, Basu said.
The centre and the state will have to intervene to resolve the crisis faced by tea garden workers, said Ziaur Alam, general secretary of Left-affiliated All India Plantation Workers’ Federation. Gardens are faced with a cash crunch, they are unlikely to be generous with bonus payment. The administration must provide a package to tide over the crisis, he added.