Darjeeling, March 4: The Gorkha Janmukti Morcha today upped the ante by enforcing an embargo on the first flush of Darjeeling tea to fulfil en extended charter of demands, which include housing and medical benefits, apart from a double hike in wages for garden workers in the hills.
Morcha chief Bimal Gurung had announced earlier that the embargo would be in force from March 7 if the wages were not hiked by the previous day. However, the party changed the tack and advanced the embargo today as “gardens have started manufacturing the first flush.”
“We have learnt that some gardens have started manufacturing the first flush and that is why we have decided to advance the embargo,” said Suraj Subba, the general secretary of the Darjeeling Terai Dooars Plantation Labour Union.
Besides the demand for the increase in the wage from Rs 67 to Rs 120-154, the union affiliated to the Morcha sought negotiations with garden owners on dearness allowance (DA), variable dearness allowances (VDA) and uniform rate for extra leaf price. The other demands relate to housing, ration, firewood, clothing and medical benefits.
Asked about the reason for raising more demands, Subba said: “Wage negotiations take place once in three years and it is a routine practice to place a charter of demands before the talks.”
Among the new demands is a hike in the DA, which is payable to the staff and sub-staff. “Since the agreement on wages and other payments is for a period of three years, the industry would not pay DA in the first year. Garden employees get DA at the rate of 8 per cent and 16 per cent for the second and the third years respectively,” said a source.
The garden workers do not get the VDA but the Morcha wants the system to be introduced.
At the moment, the labourers get an extra leaf price ranging between Rs 3.50 and 6.50 per kg. “In the hills, a garden worker is tasked to pluck 6 to 8kg of green leaves a day as against 20-22kg in the plains. The extra leaf price is an incentive to the workers to pluck more leaves than what is assigned to them,” said the source.
The quantity of tealeaves the workers are tasked to pluck and the incentives vary from one garden to the other depending on the terrain and the financial health of the plantations.
The Morcha said the extra leaf price should be fixed for gardens with similar terrain and same altitude. “We want the industry to have a uniform price for gardens of a particular altitude,” said Subba.
The hill union also wants a uniform system to be put in place for fringe benefits like firewood. “Most of the gardens pay in cash for firewood, but the rates vary. There should be uniformity on this count also,” said Subba.
Sources said a worker was entitled to 320kg of firewood per annum and if it was not provided, he was paid between Rs 32 and Rs 36 for 40kg.
The union has already sent the charter of demands to the Darjeeling Tea Association and the Indian Tea Association. Sandeep Mukherjee, the secretary of the DTA, said he had received the letter from the Morcha today. “I have forwarded the copies (of the latter) to the garden owners. Enforcing an economic embargo on any industry serves neither the management nor the workers,” said Mukherjee.
Subba, however, vowed to go ahead with the embargo. He said camps would be set up at various exit points of the hills and “mobile vigilantes” be posted to enforce the ban.
The hill party has also demanded that negotiations on the wage revision and other demands take place in Darjeeling. “We will not go to Calcutta for the talks. If the annual bonus can be negotiated in Darjeeling, the wage talks, too, can be held here. Darjeeling tea must not be taken up during the negotiations on Dooars and Terai gardens as our produce is different,” said Subba.
The union said the entry of Nepal tea would be stopped at any cost. “We hear that some gardens illegally bring in Nepal tea and mix the same with the produce here to pass it off as Darjeeling tea. We had stopped this practice in the past and we will continue to do so,” said Subba.