Kolkata: In his bid to tighten control over the Gorkha community, its emerging leader Binoy Tamang is seeking recognition of tea plantation workers as skilled labour while demanding that they be paid minimum wages.

Wage revision is due from 1 April, but negotiations were halted by the 104-day strike in Darjeeling. If Tamang is able to secure what he is demanding, he will immediately gain the support of 75,000 tea garden workers and their families—a constituency of approximately 300,000 people.

Tamang is trying to take the reins of Darjeeling’s politics from his erstwhile boss Bimal Gurung—the fugitive president of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha. Plantation owners and the government can no longer deny that tea garden workers are skilled workers, Tamang said in an interview.

This effectively means he wants tea garden workers to be paid cash wages of around Rs300 a day, inclusive of bonus, gratuity and other cash benefits. Their cash pay currently is Rs132.50 a day compared with Rs137 in Assam. Still, production cost per kilo is higher in Darjeeling than other tea growing regions because of low yield.

Under the Plantations Labour Act, estate owners are also required to provide workers with other benefits such as housing, electricity, water and healthcare, and the fully diluted cost per employee comes to around Rs285-288 a day, said Kaushik Basu, secretary at Darjeeling Tea Association (DTA), a lobby group.

The pay bump demanded by the Gorkha leader, if granted, will drive all estates in Darjeeling into a ditch, said S.S. Bagaria, chairman of the eponymous SS Bagaria Group, a large plantation owner in the district. The entire industry will become unviable, claimed Bajoria.

Plantation managers, however, privately admit that Tamang has a case. Plucking of tea leaves cannot be mechanized. Also, the same workers are employed for plucking as well as pruning of tea bushes during the winter months. “Even if plucking does not demand much skill, pruning certainly does," said a manager of a large tea estate in Darjeeling, asking not to be named.

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