Tea wage link with polls – Morcha eye on plains

The Telegraph

Darjeeling, March 3: The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha hopes a decision in favour of its demand for the revision of wages for tea garden workers will impact the results of the Assembly elections not only in the Darjeeling hills but also in the Dooars and the Terai.

Bimal Gurung, the president of the Morcha, had threatened on February 27 that if the wages were not increased from Rs 68 a day to Rs 120-150 by March 6, the party would put an embargo on the despatch of the first flush of the Darjeeling tea from the next day.

However, sources said the Morcha would start blocking the despatch of the first flush from tomorrow to exert more pressure on garden owners.

The Morcha has raised the demand for the workers in 80-odd gardens in the hills. The current wage agreement is applicable only till March 31 and a revision is slated to come into effect from April 1, a fortnight before north Bengal goes to polls.

The Morcha believes if the gardens agree to raise wages substantially, then the party will be able to consolidate its position in three Assembly seats in the hills and earn goodwill in the Dooars and the Terai. Such a deal will help the Morcha make inroads into the plains, where the unions have less bargain power to fetch workers higher wages.

The majority of voters in the hills, the Terai and the Dooars are garden dwellers. According to figures with the Tea Board of India, there are about 53,492 workers in the hill gardens. While 39,680 are dependant on the sector in the Terai, the number of garden workers in the Dooars is 1,68,867.

Observers say since the Morcha is having sway over the hills and the demand for the wage increase is accompanied by a threat, there are chances that the plantations will agree to hike the workers’ wages at least partly to meet the Morcha’s demand.

“If that were the case, operating unions in the Dooars and the Terai and their political parties will be in a tight spot. They would be seen as not working in the interest of tea garden workers,” said an observer. “Besides, no parties have demanded a hike in the wages of late in the Dooars and the Terai and looking at the way unions function in the plains, it is unlikely that they will reach a consensus.”

In fact, the trade union affiliated to the Akhil Bharatiya Adivasi Vikash Parishad had sometime back sought a wage increase from Rs 68 to Rs 250.

“The demand by the Parishad is unlikely to be met by the gardens in the plains as most of them are financially not very healthy,” said an industry insider.

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