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Last Updated: Monday, 18 July 2005, 12:46 GMT 13:46 UK
Bitter taste of deadlocked tea strike

By Subir Bhaumik
BBC News, Jalpaiguri, West Bengal

Idle tea estate in West Bengal
A tea estate in West Bengal stands idle after a week of strikes
An indefinite strike by more than a quarter of a million tea labourers in the Indian state of West Bengal has entered a second week amid mounting losses, but neither the tea estate owners nor the labourers are in a mood to relent.

"This is the peak plucking season, the tea bushes are flush, so we will lose around 200m rupees ($4.6m) a day if the strike continues," says Pranjal Neog, deputy secretary of the Indian Tea Association (ITA) in northern Bengal.

The strike started on 11 July with 14 tea worker unions demanding a doubling of daily plucking wages and better perks.

The planter unions, like the ITA, insist that wages should be linked to productivity if they are to be increased significantly.

"More than 50% of our workers in the Bengal tea estates do not complete their assigned task of plucking 25kg of green leaves every day," says Mr Neog.

"Many pluck only a quarter of that, some even less and we have to pay full wages to all, which is unacceptable.

"If Indian tea is to be competitive in the global market, we need a more efficient workforce to cut down production costs in what is a labour-intensive industry."

Export needs

According to the ITA, labour wages make up 60% of the cost of tea.

Our tea quality is better than any other country but our productivity has to improve drastically
Pranjal Neog,
Indian Tea Association

More than one million labourers work in India's 14,000 tea estates that cover around one million acres.

West Bengal and Assam account for 85% of India's current tea output of more than 850,000 tonnes - of which nearly 180,000 tonnes is exported.

Although India is the world's largest producer of tea, it exports less than a quarter.

"Our tea quality is better than any other country but our productivity has to improve drastically and cost has to go down for us to increase our exports," says Mr Neog.

The tea worker unions hotly contest this claim.

"Tea output does not merely depend on labour," says Kalyan Roy, general secretary of the West Bengal Cha Sramik (Tea Labourers) Union.

"Much depends on nature, on rains and winter, and a lot depends on how much is spent on critical input like fertilisers.

"The tea industry is now full of fly-by-night operators. The British planters used to invest, the Indian planters are mostly traders out for a quick buck. They expect to make all their money by fleecing labour," he says.

Impasse

The tea worker unions insist wages should be doubled from 45 rupees ($1) a day, but the tea planters say unless the unions agree to link productivity to wages, they can only raise the daily wage by one rupee.

Tea estate in West Bengal
Some smaller, private tea estates are continuing to function

Neither side is willing to concede much.

"In recent months, our managements have threatened closures even when we asked for legitimate wages. We must change that," says Sukumar Das, labour union activist at the Karla Valley tea estate near Jalpaiguri town.

Mr Das says the output in his garden has increased fourfold to nearly one million kilograms in the past 15 years, since the present owners took over.

"So how can they say we don't work. We toil more and get less than before," says Mr Das.

"This time we will fight to the last," says fellow labourer, Bishu Oraon.

Starvation

But in the tea estates already closed by lock-outs, labourers are desperate for work and wages.

Dasarath Oraon
We are selling off the tea leaves in the open market to feed ourselves
Dasarath Oraon,
tea union leader

In the Kathalguri estate, closed for three years, the new owners have said they will run the garden only if the workforce is reduced from the present 1,400 to 800.

"We have no choice but to accept the job cuts and get back to work," says Dasarath Oraon, who leads the union at Kathalguri.

Starvation, labourers say, has caused disease and more than 300 deaths.

Mr Oraon's brother, Nandalal, and his child were among those who died.

He himself is weak and ailing.

"We are selling off the tea leaves in the open market to feed ourselves," he says.

Analysts say West Bengal's leftist government could resolve the impasse if it declared a new minimum wage for labourers and enforced it.

"The government has been part of the negotiations between the planters and the tea worker unions. It is aware of the bargaining range of both sides, so it can offer a solution by taking the middle path," says tea analyst, Robin Sen.

But with elections to the Bengal assembly just a year away, the state's ruling coalition can neither afford to overlook its traditional support base among labourers nor lose its newly acquired investor-friendly image.


SEE ALSO:
Call for India tea strike talks
13 Jul 05 |  South Asia
Strike halts Assam tea production
29 Sep 04 |  South Asia
Pests jeopardise India tea crop
06 Feb 04 |  Business
Strike in Darjeeling
05 Feb 99 |  South Asia
Tripura tea estates under threat
05 Aug 01 |  South Asia


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