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Govt in a fix over tea workers’ daily wage

By The Assam Tribune

Rituraj Borthakur

GUWAHATI, Feb 14: Caught in a quagmire over labour welfare and sustenance of the tea industry, bigwigs of the BJP-led government in the State have been engaged in a series of meetings over the last few days, both with union representatives and planters’ bodies, to finalize the minimum wages for the tea workers. However, no consensus has been achieved as yet.

At least three ministers – Chandra Mohan Patowary, Keshab Mahanta and Sanjoy Kishan – are involved in the negotiations that have gathered steam since Friday.

According to the minutes of the meeting of the Minimum Wages Advisory Board, chaired by Sanjoy Kishan on February 6, the rate of minimum wages was to be notified by February 10. But, the exercise is turning out to be tricky one for the ruling dispensation.

The workers’ unions have been insisting on fixing Rs 351 as daily wage for tea garden workers, who are now getting Rs 167 following an interim hike of Rs 30 in 2018.

However, sources said the head of the Consultative Committee of Plantation Associations, Vivek Goenka, has categorically pointed out in the meetings that the industry is facing hardship and will not be able to sustain a further hike in the wages. Referring to the components given in kind like housing, ration, firewood, etc, the planters’ associations insisted that the tea industry is an unique industry and cannot be compared with any other industry.

One of the ministers involved in the negotiation admitted that the government fears that any hasty decision might lead to lockout in the tea gardens, and it does not want such a situation with polls knocking on the door, nor does it want to invite the ire of the tea workers.

The planters’ associations have also suggested that the rates be increased gradually, similar to the pattern in the 2015 bilateral agreement (signed between CCPA and ACMS), under which the rates were increased by Rs 15 every year in the next three years.

Sources said the planters’ associations have been sticking to a figure below Rs 200 (cash component), but the government has been trying to persuade them to go up to Rs 220-250.

Tea workers constitute a major vote bank in the State and in some constituencies their presence is up to 70 per cent of the total electorate.

“A lot of welfare measures have been taken for the workers in during the last four and half years. We do not want to undo all those by taking a wrong decision on the wages. That is why the exercise is being done very carefully,” sources in the government said.

When contacted, Labour Welfare Minister Sanjoy Kishan said no decision has been arrived at.

“Even yesterday, we sat till late in the night. Today also, negotiations are going on. They (CCPA) have been sticking to their stand; we’ve also made ours clear. The rates have not been increased for several years. We will take into consideration the problems of the industry while taking any decision for the welfare of tea workers. Hopefully, by tomorrow, we would be able to come up with something,” Kishan said over telephone from his constituency Tinsukia.

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