It is high time for all people concerned to work towards improving land and labour productivity and quality of tea in Assam to bail out the state�s tea industry from its present crisis. Productivity of labour depends on their health and wages they earn. A satisfactory enhancement in wages, which is overdue, will play a crucial role in bringing vitality back to the industry, according to tea expert Pranab Kumar Sarma, a former superintending manager of Tezpore Tea Company Ltd of the Shaw Wallace Group.
Sarma observed that while mechanisation has improved the productivity of tea factory workers, tea pluckers� productivity has declined considerably. Land productivity has decreased in many big gardens and water-related problems are some of the major causes for loss of land productivity. A project report of the Bimala Prasad Chaliha (BPC) Chair Professor of IIT-Guwahati highlighted these problems, and Sarma had worked as a field expert in that project. Reduced land productivity has prevented the industry from offering higher wages to the workers.
Laws of the land have defined minimum wages as the remuneration to maintain the workers� basic living standard. However, during wage-related bipartite negotiations for Assam tea estates (TEs), which involve the management and workers� unions, the industry�s paying capacity also comes into play.
The Assam government-constituted Chetia Committee in its 1951 report was unambiguous that in assessing the minimum requirements, the additional benefits provided by TE managements like housing, medical benefit and primary education might be taken into consideration. The 15th Indian Labour Conference (ILC) held in 1957 was for the minimum wages covering all the needs of workers� families.
A worker�s family consists of a married couple and their two under-14-year-old children. The husband is assigned one unit, the wife 0.8 unit and their children 0.6 unit each, while assessing the needs. Thus, the minimum wage is to meet the needs of three persons. The food requirement of the family is worked out as per the recommendations of noted nutritionist late Dr Wallace Aykroyd as 2,700 calories per adult.
The cloth requirement is estimated at 72 yards (65.83 metres) for a family of four persons. The ILC kept house rent at 8.5 per cent and for fuel, lighting and other expenses, it ascribed 20 per cent of the basic minimum wages.
But in 1966, the country�s Central Wage Board for Tea Plantation decided to accept 1.5 units to determine the need-based minimum wages instead of 3 units, on the plea from the TE owners� associations, which argued that in the TEs, at least two persons from the same family work simultaneously.
In the Brahmaputra valley, the last bipartite meeting held between management associations and workers� unions in February 2015 had decided that the cash component would be raised to Rs 115 with effect from (w.e.f.) January 1, 2015, Rs 126 w.e.f. January 2016 and Rs 137 w.e.f. January 2017. As there was no agreement thereafter, the Assam government advised the industry to pay an interim increment of Rs 30 w.e.f. March 1, 2018. Thus, the present cash component of tea garden workers stands to be at Rs 167 in the Brahmaputra valley.
While negotiating the cash component in 2015, the managements informed that including social cost, the total wages was Rs 250 per head, meaning daily social cost against each worker was Rs 135. On that basis, with cash component of Rs 167, considering 30 per cent increase on the social expenditure component, the total daily wages stands at Rs 342.75 since March 2018.
As per Wage Board for Tea Plantations, only the cash component of the wages could be hiked. The Inter-Ministerial Committee of the Parliamentary Standing Committee engaged in finding out solutions to tea workers� wage-related problems, had recommended on August 9, 2012, sharing of the social cost component by the state government, Central government and TE managements, respectively in the ratio of 10:40:50 to enable the managements raise the cash component. But this recommendation has still not been implemented. For a permanent solution to wage-related problems, legislation may be passed, Sarma said.