ACTIVITY REPORTS - September 2021 (WB, Bihar, Karnataka)

West Bengal

Tea Workers Convention Demands Minimum Wages and Land Rights

Abhijit Mazumdar

A mammoth assembly of tea workers, hailing from most of the tea gardens of Terai, Dooars and Darjeeling Hills met at Bhanu Bhawan (Gorkha Rangmanch), Darjeeling town, in a spectacular convention on 11 September 2021. The convention was the culmination of a decision taken at a meeting of the leaders of all tea unions in Siliguri, owing allegiance to the “Joint Forum” of 37 trade unions operating in the tea sector of North Bengal.

Burying all political differences for the first time, TMC led, INTTUC affiliated, five tea unions also joined the concerted movement demanding minimum wages and land rights for the struggling workers of the tea sector. P.T.Sherpa, a veteran leader of the tea garden workers of Darjeeling hills, presided over the convention as the chairperson. All leaders were greeted by offering the traditional 'Khada'.

Broaching the main demands of minimum wages and land pattas for tea workers, Com. Ziaul Alam (CITU), the Convenor of the Joint Forum, explained the prevailing critical condition of tea workers as a whole, and gave a call to make the most of this opportune moment to press for the demands of issues of housing with the growing united strength of all unions.

To put into sharp relief, the various aspects of deprivation points like lack of availability of Covid vaccines at garden level, food insecurity, non-realisation of extending the age of superannuation from 58 to 60 years for the permanent workers, the motivated suspension of Tea Act of 1953 by the central government, the historic trajectory of hill workers' movement for realising 20% bonus and other demands, a number of resolutions were proposed by leaders Manikumar Darnal (INTUC), Nakul Sonar (INTTUC), Harihar Achariya (BMS), Suraj Subba (GJMM- Bimal Gurung faction), Gopal Pradhan (UTUC) and others.

On behalf of Tarai Sangrami Cha Shramik Union (affiliated to AICCTU), Com. Abhijit Mazumdar spoke on the adverse impact of the four Labour Codes on the wages, social security, industrial relations and on safety, health and working conditions of the tea workers as a whole. He moved a resolution for outright rejection of labour codes and to join the forthcoming Bharat Bandh on 27 September against the three draconian Farm laws and four Labour Codes, towards strengthening the unity of workers and peasants and to achieve the demands of the tea workers in particular.

The existing deplorable working conditions of West Bengal tea workers were raised in the convention with categorical references to lacunae in providing proper housing facilities by the employers. The worker's families remain cribbed and cabined in a small space of one-room tenement, where they have to arrange paying electricity bills and necessary repair of old labour quarters. Even potable drinking water is not supplied in most of the tea garden labour lines. Most of the gardens do not provide health care services as per the requisites of PLA (Plantation Labour Act). No ambulance service is available except in a few big gardens run by big companies like Andrew Yule, Goodricke, etc. Moreover, stretching work-hours from 8 to 9 hours during prime plucking season leaves a detrimental impact on health. With variance to the number of health advisories issued both by the state and the union governments that restricted workers' attendance a day to 50% of total strength, the employers engaged 100% workforce in plucking and other works without taking any precautionary safety measures to protect workers against the spread of Covid-19 infections.

Wage for daily-rated workers now stands at Rs. 202 in Bengal tea sector which is also determined unilaterally by the state labour ministry and rolled out by the industry in 2-3 installments as interim benefits. By adopting this uncalled for method of fixing wages, the state government has by-passed the united demand of declaring a structured minimum wage in tea sector for the first time, since the inception of the industry in the colonial period. The retirement age for a permanent worker still remains at 58 years. In addition, after retirement from work, a permanent worker is mandated to leave the labour quarter. Hence, the demand for realising patta for the homestead lands has come up in a big way and the much-touted 'Cha Sundari Project' of WB government to provide free housing for the workers has lost its steam.

In the name of amending the Tea Act of 1953, the union labour ministry has, in recent times, obliterated Sections 12 to 16 of it. Not only that securing government's prior permission while extending the area of the garden or acquiring land to set up a new plantation is lifted but also that the penal provision for violation under Sec 39 and 40 are also lifted. The tea garden employers seem to rejoice over this decision.  They also remain hopeful to get the share of the budgetary allocation of Rs. 1000 crore as a fortune while depriving working population its dues. They are getting this allocation for doing brisk business that would not have been possible without the hard labour of the workforce, who braved the health threats of Covid-19 and also economic and medical deprivations. But, the workers who are actually the basic reason for the benefits of employers are being denied all mandatory benefits even.

At times, the employers are found to manipulate the garden level register to prepone the retirement age of a worker and to re-engage her/him on voucher payment denying all benefits of permanent workers. PF and gratuity deposits often suffer defalcation and the employers enjoy immunity, hoodwinking penal provisions of law.

The convention adopted all resolutions in high spirit and the session ended with a vote of thanks by local organisers.

It was also resolved that if the next round of meeting of the Advisory Committee of MW (minimum wages) for tea sector does not yield a positive outcome, an all-out movement will be unitedly launched to achieve all the above demands, after the conclusion of the bonus negotiation scheduled on 14--15 September 2021.

Post-script: All the tea unions, irrespective of colours could successfully wrestle out the decision of paying 20% bonus even from the stubborn employers.

The next round of meeting of Advisory Committee of MW has been scheduled on 4-5 October '21. All eyes are now fixed on the outcome of the meeting to determine the next course of united actions. 


A First Step of Victory for Sanitation Workers' Strike in Bihar HC Orders Government to Reply for Worker’s Demands


The sanitation workers and other sections of workers of municipal corporations and local bodies of Bihar state went on a state-wide indefinite strike from 7 September 2021. The strike was led by the joint front of Bihar Rajya Sthaniya Nikay Karamchari Sangh, affiliated to AICCTU, and other municipal workers’ federations. The strike ended after one week with Patna High Court passing an order on 14 September directing the government to file a reply through affidavit on the workers' demands within eight weeks. Further, the court gave directions to the government to pay all arrears to workers within one week and revoke all disciplinary action against the workers. The court ordered for a dialogue with the representatives of workers unions before taking a final decision and before filing a reply. On the matter of outsourcing, the court directed that the services shall not be dispensed with till the final decision is taken by the government. The court made no adverse comments on the strike.

An unprecedented unity of all sections of municipal workers - both contractual and permanent workers, marked the strike. 12 municipal corporations, 49 town parishads and 80 Town panchayats took part in the strike. The striking workers raised a 12-point charter of demands, including repealing the order on ending Group D posts and outsourcing them instead and regularizing daily, outsourced and contract workers on these posts. The charter put forth the demand of creating regular posts in accordance with population, ending outsourcing / contract / commission system, equal pay for equal work, minimum monthly salary of Rs.18000-21000, implementation of 5th, 6th and 7th pay commission recommendations and benefit of ACP for permanent workers.

AICCTU played a leading role in organising the strike and garnering support for it. The strike received wide support from various employees organisations of Bihar. Karamchari Mahasangh (Gope), Bihar Rajya Asha Karyakarta Sangh, Viddyalay Rasoiya (MDM) Sangh and many other organisations. CPI-ML extended its full support to the strike.

Letters expressing solidarity to the strike and demanding an amicable solution were sent to Chief Minister of Bihar Mr Nitish Kumar by Uday Bhat, President of All India Municipal Workers’ Federation and workers unions of municipal corporations of other regions including Pune, Bengaluru, Allahabad, Coimbatore, and AICCTU State unit of Tamil Nadu.

Castigating and exposing the Nitish-BJP government, Com. Shyamlal Prasad, General Secretary of Bihar Rajya Sthaniya Nikay Karamchari Sangh and State President of AICCTU said that the Bihar govt. has resorted to vindictive and repressive actions against the striking employees, instead of fulfilling the demands. While on the one hand, the government proclaims itself to be a government of social justice and keeps trumpeting its commitment for the dignity and development of sanitation workers and dalits-backwards, on the other hand, it has turned a deaf ear to the pressing demands of these frontline workers, who are overwhelmingly dalits and maha-dalits, who are the backbone of Modi’s Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and who risk and sacrifice their lives in the battle against Covid-19.

Welcoming the HC Order, he stated that it was the Nitish government, insensitive to the just demands of the workers, appealed to the court instead of resorting to dialogue with the protesting workers. “If the Nitish-BJP government failed to comply with the court orders within the stipulated time, the corporation workers will be forced to agitate again” and he emphasised that the entire responsibility of it rests on the government now. 


NIMHANS Workers of Bengaluru Emerge Victorious After 68 Days of Relentless Struggle

Maitreyi Krishnan

19 hospital assistants, who were working in National Institute of Mental Health and Neurological Sciences (NIMHANS), Bengaluru, for several decades, but branded as contract workers, were illegally removed from employment on 9 July 2021 through oral instructions. The workers are predominantly Dalit and 15 of them are women. The reason for such an arbitrary action was that one day earlier, the NIMHANS administration unilaterally changed the shift timings in a way that the shift which ended at 7 pm, now ended at 9.30 pm. This was the time when the Government of Karnataka had declared a night curfew prohibiting all activities after 9 PM, which would mean that there was no public transportation whatsoever. The workers who came from long distances expressed their difficulty in travelling during the night curfew and sought provision for transportation. When the workers expressed their difficulties and apprehensions, the Management of NIMHANS abused these workers in vulgar language and unilaterally removed them from employment the next day.

These workers, and in fact about 700 workers, all of whom have been performing core and perennial work for several decades are termed “contract workers” and denied job security. They are being forced to work in a state of permanent insecurity. This is part of the Central Government’s policy which “abolished” the D-group cadre itself, thereby mandating that these workers who are predominantly dalit and largely women to work under insecure conditions.

The action by NIMHANS was clearly illegal. Neither had they issued a notice for change, nor had they complied with the notification of the Government that mandated that women could work after 7 PM only if the individual woman employee consented and the employer provided transportation along with CCTV camera.

The workers started a struggle against the illegal actions of NIMHANS under the banner of the NIMHANS Pragathipara (Progressive) Workers Union affiliated to AICCTU, protesting outside NIMHANS demanding that the terminated workers be reinstated. The protesting workers, a majority of whom were women were subjected to threats and harassment of all forms. The NIMHANS Management, instead of coming forward and speaking to the workers, resorted to targeting them through various forms - a CCTV camera was put up which captured only the protest area, a clear violation of their privacy; false police complaints were made against workers and they had to face repeated threats of arrest from the police. Workers who supported the terminated workers were subjected to threats of termination. In several instances the workers were detained at the police station throughout the day. The workers, however, were committed to the struggle and to withstand any form of assault and to fight till the end.

The protest of the workers captured the imagination of the people across the city of Bengaluru, with support pouring in for workers from all quarters. Several other Unions, including sanitation workers, ready-mix concrete workers, ITI workers, and workers from libraries came together to support them. Various women and women’s organizations published an open letter condemning the actions of the Management of NIMHANS and demanded that the workers be taken back on duty. A fact-finding team of various members of civil society visited the protesting workers, met the NIMHANS administration and submitted a representation to NIMHANS and the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare. The Karnataka Safai Karamchari Commission visited the protest site and directed the NIMHANS administration to ensure that the workers were reinstated.

It was after 68 days of continuous protest and due to the unflinching stand of the workers that the NIMHANS Management was forced to beat a retreat and to permit the 19 workers to resume duty. On 15 September, 2021, the 19 workers resumed duty, through a written understanding in front of the Assistant Labour Commissioner (Central), victorious after their united militant struggle.

This struggle brings to the forefront the manner in which laws that “permit” night shifts for women, in the name of freedom of employment, are in fact tools for exploitation and oppression. It also brings to the forefront the struggle of contract workers, a system the Supreme Court has termed as an improved form of bonded labour, across the country. The work performed by them is core, necessary and essential in nature and in fact these workers were the frontline workers who worked throughout the COVID pandemic and had been at the forefront of the battle against COVID-19. Yet the assault against them continues, with the Occupational Health and Safety Code, 2020 stating that sanitation work, housekeeping and laundry services “shall not be considered as essential or necessary activity”. It must be noted that those performing this work are predominantly Dalits performing their caste ordained occupation, and women, and it is these historically oppressed groups of workers who are being condemned to work only as “contract workers”.

The struggle of the NIMHANS workers is one that history will remember. The struggle forward is against the contract labour system that seeks to treat workers as slaves.