The plights of being a female tea worker in West Bengal

Excerpts of an interview with Sumanti Ekka, a 26 year old tea worker of Darjeeling district, West Bengal, recorded by Saswati Sengupta on 5 April 2021) 

Saswati: We’re now at the residence of Sumanti Ekka, located at Kaduvita village under Khoribari Block in Darjeeling district. Sumanti could only steal few minutes from her busy schedule of election campaign for this brief interview. She has been nominated by CPI (ML) Liberation as a candidate fighting the ongoing West Bengal assembly polls from Phansidewa (ST) constituency. This assembly constituency is consisted of Phansidewa and Khoribari blocks, remaining major centres of peasant upsurge way back in the late 1960s. Presently the economic activities centre predominantly around both big and small tea gardens. 

Sumanti, what sort of demands are you raising during your election campaign? 

Sumanti: Look, as a tea factory worker earning a daily wage below subsistence level through 8 hours of hard labour, reality compels me to demand a structured Minimum Wage Schedule for the tea workmen of West Bengal. We’ve been demanding it through the last 6 years or so, resorted to all sorts of democratic mass movements, but the state government went back on its written affirmation by nullifying the proposals, placed before the MW Advisory Board by all tea trade unions. This age-old nexus between the employers’ conglomerate and the state governments of different hue, remained a perennial block denying even the legitimate demand of MW in India’s 2nd largest labour-intensive industry. 

Saswati: Would you please explain the existing mode of payment of wages in tea?

Sumanti: Just before the declaration of these present phases of polls, the state govt. unilaterally enhanced the daily wages of a tea plucker from Rs. 176 to Rs. 202 by adding a meager amount of Rs. 26 as if like a reward. Whereas, the calculated MW should have been more than Rs. 500 a day! A permanent tea worker has a daily task of plucking 24-26 kgs. of tea leaves. By following the draconian agreement of 2005, the workers are denied even the settled daily wage if they fail to fulfill the given task. A lactating female worker (Nani Mai) or a sick elderly plucker (Lata Bura) often suffers a cut on their subsistence wage as they fail to meet the demands of the manager. Even absentism for consecutive 3 days for a worker, denied sick leave, has a portent of losing wages for a whole week ! 

On top of that, after the enforcement of Food security Act in 2016 in Bengal the management is also exonerated from their duty of supplying food grains at a subsidized rate of 40 paise per Kilogram of rice and wheat. By way of doing this, the tea management has managed a pilferage of thousand crores over a period of 5 years or so, since the Tea Plantation Labour Act of 1951 enshrines this food subsidy as part of wages. 

Saswati: What other deprivation points are there for a male or female tea worker? 

Sumanti: For a permanent tea worker the retirement age is 58 years. As it had been the tradition earlier, her descendant (male of female) used to be offered the job as a badly worker. But given the present low wage structure, the able bodied members of a tea worker family are seen on the run to earn better wages in Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Delhi, Mumbai. Because of this spate of out migration under compulsion, the retired worker has to leave his allotted space in labour quarters forthwith. That’s why we’ve also raised the legitimate demand of land patta for permanent workers to stall the threat of possible eviction. Presently, the workmen of a tea estate are also deprived of their lawful quota on firewood, tea leaves, festival largesse etc. on a regular basis. 

Perhaps you remember that, tea remained one of the sterling industries of the land where production resumed after a short spell of stoppage during the unplanned Covid Lockdown period. Tea workers were given a sum of Rs. 600 to Rs.1000 for the period of suspension of work, purportedly as a part payment of LockDown wages. But later when the production resumed full swing the same amount was deducted from their fortnightly wages. 

Female factory workers are engaged both in day and night shifts without the lawful provision of proper toilet facilities. Even baby crèche has become a rarity in most of the tea gardens. There remains severe scarcity in supply of potable drinking water during the tiresome day’s work. 

Saswati: What medical facilities are available in tea gardens now? 

Sumanti: Very few famed tea gardens still have a semblance of group hospitals and supply of some medicines. But in most of them you won’t find even a compounder to dispense medicines in case of common ailments. A registered medical practitioner is always a missing entity. No ambulance is available inside a garden. I personally bore witness to a horrible event few years back while working as a temporary plucker in Maruti Tea Estate, 20 kms away from my home. A female co-plucker one day was bitten by a venomous snake during day time. The snake was stoned to death by other workers on field, but the management turned a blind eye to the suffering female and she died before my eyes unattended by any managerial staff. 

Saswati: Whom do you hold responsible for this sordid state of affairs existing in tea gardens? The management, the state or the union government? 

Sumanti: Obviously, the garden managements act as the most visible oppressors on daily count. A cut in wages and other facilities enable them to maximize on profit. They still are the beneficiary of the colonial mode of exploitation. But a committed unionized labour force may at times wrestle out an iota of lawful benefits through a process of bargaining. 

The state government, the labour department in particular often fails to put the onus on a failing management. Some notorious planters may also be seen to flout the laws pertaining to payment of provident fund and gratuity dues. The state government also tries to hoodwink the workers by making false promises of proclamation of MW structure. 

But in present context, I would hold the BJP government at the centre responsible for holding on to a nefarious design of denial of workers’ hard earned rights, for the explicit benefits of its crony corporate brothers like Adanis and Ambanis. The much touted labour reforms of Modi Sarkar when implemented would remove altogether Tea Plantation Labour Act of 1951 and Tea Act of 1953. A tea worker in near future would have to work for more than 12 hours a day without earning the cash benefits of laboring overtime. Fixed-term employment scheme will deliberately obliterate the idea of permanent jobs. Even the inherent rights of forming a union will be denied outrightly. Hire and fire principle will have a major sway in tea industry, if given an unabated passage. 

On the other hand, Modi and his cohorts seem to be hellbent in wrestling state power in West Bengal by employing money and muscle power. BJP’s poll campaign rolls out a call to implement Citizenship Amendment Act 2019 (CAA) in their first cabinet meeting, if they could grab the state power. Following Amit Shah’s infamous ‘chronology samjhiye’ utterances, the NRC-NPR-CAA triad threatens most the life and livelihood of both Adivasi and Mulbasi tea workers who do not have any ‘kagaz’ (documents) to furnish, proving their legacy status of being Indian citizens. 

Saswati: What are the reasons in choosing a left trade union to achieve your rights and privileges? 

Sumanti: My choice of becoming a tea worker and joining Tarai Sangrami Cha Shramik Union (affiliated to AICCTU) was predicated on my participation in May Day celebration at garden level, even when I was a kid. My fascination over Red flag had grown on the idea of collectivism and labour power. I can’t stand the whole idea of rights and freedom driven down the drains before my eyes. So, my call is for standing united and to fight out this menace of a Labour Code tooth and nail. I find this Modi government spilling out virus like Covid-19 and acting like a pestilence itself.