Relief for tea and education – Gurung sets March 6 deadline to increase garden workers’ wages to Rs 120

The Telegraph

Kumani, Feb. 27: The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha today put on hold an embargo on the despatch of the first flush of Darjeeling tea till March 6 and overruled the decision of the party’s student wing to boycott classes from tomorrow.

The Morcha had earlier said the despatch of the first flush of tea would be stopped from today as part of the agitation for Gorkhaland.

But party chief Bimal Gurung today said the embargo had been announced for the welfare of tea workers and demanded a wage hike before the relief period ended.

“A few days ago, I had told the management of the tea industry in the Darjeeling hills that the wages must be hiked. The price of pork has now touched the Rs 100 mark but after eight hours of work, our labourers get Rs 67. We demand that the wages be made Rs 120-Rs 150 per day by March 6. If that doesn’t happen, we will stop the despatch from the next day,” said Gurung.

He was addressing party workers at Kumani, where they had arrived from different parts of the Dooars under cloak of darkness, defying the prohibitory order.

The Morcha leader sounded confident that the hike would be agreed upon by garden owners. “We only say things that we can achieve. I had asked managements to provide the annual bonus at the rate of 20 per cent and we got it.”

Gurung also said there was no need for the tea industry to refer the matter to the state government. “In any case, the code of conduct (for polls) is set to be enforced soon, after which the state government cannot announce anything. You (management) decide and finish this issue right away. You can come to Kumani or we can go to any place you want but it has to be decided by March 6,” he said.

The existing agreement on the wages expires on March 31, 2011, and talks between trade unions and managements for a review are expected to start soon. “Negotiations on the wage agreement have to start soon. The decision is collectively taken by all operating trade unions and garden managements in north Bengal,” said Sandeep Mukherjee, the secretary of the Darjeeling Tea Association.

Asked if such a meeting would be called immediately to take a decision by March 6, Mukherjee said he would have to “refer the matter to the principals (garden owners) of the industry”.

People involved with the industry said it would be difficult to agree to the Morcha demand. “Negotiations will have to start at some time but the parameters (almost a double hike) would be difficult for the industry to meet. But negotiations are held to iron out such differences,” said an industry insider.

The tea sector, however, breathed a sigh of relief as the Morcha had lifted the embargo. “The breather is definitely welcome though we want to solve the issue so that the first flush is not affected,” said the insider.

Gurung also said education must not be hampered and classes should be held normally at schools and colleges in the hills from tomorrow.

“The students have announced an agitation but I would like to say education must not be hampered. Instead of boycott, students and teachers should attend classes wearing a black armband as a mark of protest. I have, however, given them permission to hold a padayatra and they should also organise roadshows on the Sibchu police firing,” he said.

The Gorkha Janmukti Vidyarthi Morcha had called on students on Friday to boycott classes from Monday till the state government ordered a CBI probe into the police firing that had killed three persons at Sibchu on February 8.

The student wing also announced that a padayatra would be organised from Darjeeling to Calcutta to highlight the killings, the date of which is to be announced on March 6.

Teachers appreciated Gurung’s announcement. “We have no problems wearing armband as a mark of protest as education will not be hampered,” said a teacher.

Arson charge

Morcha leader Harka Bahadur Chhetri today alleged police had burnt party flags and khadas at the spot of the Sibchu firing late tonight. Jalpaiguri police chief Anand Kumar said nothing had been burnt. “We have just removed a polythene sheet and other things because they were on the highway.”

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