The Darjeeling district administration has expressed deep concern over the growing unrest in tea gardens following the non-payment of wages to labourers after demonetisation. Tea garden workers mostly get wages in cash.
On Monday the Joint Forum of Trade Unions of Tea Industry of West Bengal, a conglomeration of 26 trade unions, gave a deputation to the district magistrate, Darjeeling along with a memorandum to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Copies of the memorandum were marked to the Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee and RBI governor Urjit Patel.
“Union representatives claimed that 40% of the wage amount is due in the tea gardens for November. Wage has not been paid for December. They said the management is finding it difficult to clear the backlog. The situation is becoming more and more acute every passing day. We are apprehending law and order problems,” said Anurag Srivastava, DM Darjeeling.
The tea gardens of north Bengal were passing through a crisis for the past several years with a number of gardens suffering from poor productivity. A few closed down and there were frequent reports of acute poverty and deaths due to symptoms related to malnutrition and hunger. Demonetisation has added to the woes.
Incidentally, Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee has emerged as the fiercest critic of the Prime Minister’s demonetisation move, and has been trying to rally political parties around the country to oppose it.
Prior to demonetisation, tea garden workers got weekly or fortnightly wages in cash. Post November 8, the state government and RBI worked out a system whereby an account under the DM was being used to deposit and withdraw money by the management to disburse wages.
“However, we were instructed by RBI to discontinue this system. Instead RBI came up with a formula whereby tea gardens could withdraw cash. This system was in place till December 5. After this we are yet to receive a fresh directive from RBI,” said the DM.
The memorandum alleged “the severe adverse impact of post-demonetisation restrictions of payment of wages in cash on the lives and livelihood of nearly 4.5 lakh workers engaged in the tea industry of Bengal.”
Across Bengal tea and jute industries have started feeling the pinch badly. On December 9, Tirrihannah Tea Estate in North Bengal suspended operations rendering 1,500 workers jobless. Shree Hanuman Jute Mill in Howrah put up a work suspension notice on December 6 affecting 2,500 workers. On December 14, Empire Jute Mill in North 24-Parganas downed shutters after about 3,000 workers revolted against the management’s decision to pay wages through bank accounts.
The memorandum said there is hardly any banking or ATM facility in the remote tea garden areas.
“The earlier system of paying wages in cash on stipulated paydays (weekly, fortnightly or monthly) should immediately be resumed. Until proper banking facilities are made available to workers, the e-payment policy should be put on hold,” it said.
The memorandum comes in the wake of RBI circulars to the management of tea gardens directing all daily wage workers and staff of tea gardens to open bank accounts for payment of wages and monthly salary.
Saman Pathak of CPI(M) said at present the daily wage of a worker is Rs 132.50. After deduction of PF each week, workers receive weekly wage amounting to Rs 700.
“If e-payment policy is enforced under present conditions, the wages of the workers will amount to Rs 500 only owing to the deduction of one-day wage. A day is required for visiting banks and ATMs (leading to absenteeism) along with the travel cost to be incurred by the workers,” said Pathak.
The DM said the state government has also expressed concern.
“The district magistrates of the five tea-producing districts of North Bengal had a video conference with the chief secretary last Friday. We had meetings with bankers for setting up micro ATMs in tea gardens. However, creating banking infrastructure is a time-taking process,” said the Darjeeling DM.