It is 76 years of India’s Independence, yet the racist profit seeking exploitation of Tea Workers continues unabated. The tea estates of North Bengal and Assam carry the colonial legacy of inhuman exploitation of the tribes who were brought from Jharkhand and adjacent areas in the early nineteenth century by the colonial rulers. Since then, the mechanism of earning super profit by the owners of tea estates is maintained through super exploitation of the tea garden workers. What else could explain the fact that till now the governments refuse to fix minimum wages for tea workers?
In Assam, there are about 1.1 million tea workers working in 932 registered tea gardens. Just like in North Bengal, tea workers of Assam have been kept out of the scope of minimum wages. It is important to mention that the tea workers also known as the tea tribes have not merely been passive recipients of exploitation, but have fought glorious struggles for dignity and rights since colonial times. In recent history, the tea workers fought a significant battle demanding minimum wages in the later part of 1980s when the Asom Gana Parishad Government came to power in Assam. The All Tea Tribe Student Association (ATTSA) demanded an increase in wages from Rs 13 to Rs 25. The Asom Sangrami Chah Sramik Sangha (ASCSS, now affiliated to AICCTU) was formed on 4th November, 1989 and joined the movement demanding increase in wages. However, the demand for ensuring minimum wages for tea workers was not paid heed to by the government. But the spirited struggle of the tea workers for minimum wages continued. During the second term of the AGP government, the demand for Sunday Wages was raised. Subsequently, there was a change of government in the state. Tarun Gogoi became the Chief Minister of the Congress led government in 2001. This period was also marked by a greater consolidation of the tea tribe community and larger representation in the state assembly as well as Loksabha. Despite that, the Congress government failed to bring the tea workers under the scope of minimum wages. Later, with the change of political climate in the country and the emergence of BJP as a ruling force during the 2014 Loksabha election, fixation of minimum wages was once again promised for the tea workers. The same promise was made during the 2016 Assembly election. The BJP has been ruling both at the centre and the state since then. While Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister of India, Sarbananda Sonowal became the Chief Minister of a BJP led government in Assam. Pallab Losan Das, the labour minister in Sarbananda Sonowal government himself belongs to the tea community. With a change of government and a labour minister from the community itself, the tea workers expected that the status quo in terms of their wages would change and the government would respect its pre-election promise. The labour commissioner of Assam calculated the legal minimum wage as per the Minimum Wages Act and direction by the Supreme Court. He proposed the minimum wages to be fixed at Rs 351.33 per day and submitted his proposal to the Wage Advisory Board in 2018. Shamefully, the Sonowal government, rather than accepting the proposal by the Labour Commissioner and implementing minimum wages for tea workers, sent the proposal to an one man committee under the pressure of CCPA(Consultative Committee of Planters Association) to once again derail the process of fixation of minimum wages for tea workers. Shocked by the blatant betrayal by the government, the joint platform of different Trade Unions, the JACTWW called for a 12 hours strike on 20th November, 2018. The impact of the strike was huge and workers of more than 600 tea gardens participated in the strike. While recommendations of the one man committee were never submitted, the Assam government went on to revise the interim wages for tea workers, continuing the age old tactics of denying the workers of their rightful wages. The BJP managed to win the 2019 Loksabha election in the backdrop of a nation wide communal and ethnic polarisation orchestrated by RSS-BJP machinery that also impacted Assam. While fixation of minimum wages for tea workers remained unaddressed, a nationwide lockdown was imposed in 2020. The owners of tea estates refused to pay the workers their lockdown wages. After a persistent battle by the ASCSS, around ten thousand workers have been paid their full lock down wages.
In the assembly election of 2021, the BJP came back to power, this time with a change of Chief Minister. Himanta Biswa Sarma became the new Chief Minister. Emboldened by subsequent electoral victories, the BJP government no longer felt the compulsion of pretension and an increase in the interim wages, and not fixation of minimum wages, were declared by the state government. As the betrayal by the BJP government on the question of fixation of minimum wages became more than evident, scope of a renewed momentum of the tea workers’ movement has been generated. Assessing the potential of a tea workers’ upsurge against its betrayal, the BJP government is now using another ploy to divert the anger of the tea workers. The Tea Tribe Welfare Department has been renamed as Tea Tribe and Adivasi Welfare Department, indicating acceptance of the term adivasi for the tea tribes. Needless to mention, the change of nomenclature has come with no implication for the welfare of the tea tribes when their basic rights such as fixation of minimum wages continue to be ignored. The Chief Minister’s loyalty to the owners of tea estates has gone to such an extent that he himself has started playing the role of mediator ignoring the wage Advisory Board. This has set a dangerous precedent as political loyalty of the incumbent to the owners of tea gardens is bound to overpower the mandate of an institution such as the Wage Advisory Board that calculates minimum wages based on well established principles.
In such a backdrop, the JACTWW, the joint platform of struggle of Trade Unions has decided to intensify the battle for ensuring minimum wages for tea workers. A complete strike on 29th November has been announced. Subsequently a long march passing through all gardens and connecting all workers has been planned from January onwards culminating in a Wage Mahasabha in February.
The need of the time is to conclusively fight the battle for fixation of minimum wages for tea workers defeating all ploys of diversion by the government.