350,000 Tea Workers on a War Path in North Bengal

Three and a half lakh tea garden workers from the Darjeeling hills, the Terai and Dooars areas of North Bengal are on an indefinite strike against their bosses from 11 July.  Over a 1000 small estates and 310 large ones are involved in the strike.  The estates have been lying closed for over 10 days before the strike began, with workers demanding basic wages and planters proposing a productivity-linked hike.  This strike is of course not the first of its kind.  The annals of labour struggle in the area reveal a long history of working class protest and militancy.

Profit Before People

The antecedents of this most recent strike go back to 1999 which marked the end of the so called boom in the tea industry.  The bosses back then had agreed to recruit over 10,000 new workers in accordance with worker’s demand, a promise that has gone unfulfilled till date.  The boom, however, did not affect the bosses in the same way.  Unprecedented profits in tea ushered in huge short term investments generally from a new class of speculators.  This new breed of bosses differed from their older counterparts in that they ensured that the entire surplus went into share markets and other trades without the minimum necessary reinvestment towards the estates themselves.  Essential tasks, such as pruning of tea bushes, uprooting of old bushes and expanding into new plantation were completely abandoned in favour of stocks and shares.  The new trend did not simply impinge upon the working conditions of workers but also seriously affected the quality of tea.

The bosses meanwhile flourished.  Monopoly control over the auction houses maintained through a cartel of big producers-cum-brokers, such as Tata-Carrit Moran, ensured that auction prices were kept to a minimum creating an utterly spurious “crisis” in the tea market. The goal was to flush out the conventional tea growers from the industry and take over, one that this alliance of multinationals, both home-grown and international, was fairly successful in fulfilling.

The first group to be hit by this “crisis” was thus the small and middling planters.  Initially they tried to make up their losses by stealing and pilfering wages, rations, and provident fund due to the workers.  This, as we all know, resulted in the infamous starvation deaths that hit the entire region, killing more than 1000 workers and members of their family.  On 24 August 2003 the labour secretary of the state government in a letter addressed to the labour minister mentioned the spate of starvation deaths in the tea gardens. But the “leftist” chief minister officially denied such facts and with typical arrogance brushed aside the “myth” of starvation deaths.  The multinationals did not fail to use this opportunity to further their own ends.  At the height of the starvation deaths, Tata Tea brandished a unique advertisement in the local dailies offering lucrative price for buying up the crisis-ridden tea estates.  The fact that the deaths were caused by them was carefully hidden behind paternalistic rhetoric of “helping” the crisis-ridden industry.

The Trade Unions and the “Leftist” Government

It is natural that bosses will seek profits over worker’s lives and livelihoods.  The tea workers of North Bengal , however, were betrayed by groups that are traditionally considered to be allies of the working class.  The role of the trade union leadership and the so called “left” government of West Bengal in this deadly saga are far from glorious.  Leaders of all the major unions, CITU, INTUC, AITUC, UTUC, contrary to the workers demands and expectations struck appalling deals with the bosses behind the backs of their membership.  Most of these bi-partite “agreements” were in fact illegal.  They forced the starving workers to accept wages for 3 days for full 6 days work.  These deals were endorsed by the state’s labour department, even in the face of increasing reports of deaths in the estates.

The Government did intervene, but on behalf of the bosses.  As the planters cried hoarse over the false “crisis”, they were helped out by generous state largesse.  Both the central and the state governments, along with the tea board, came to the rescue of these ‘poor’ owners.  The Congress-led government at the Centre, pumped in 500 crores to save the industrialists. Their partner in West Bengal helped out by scaling down fees for renewal of government lease-hold land from Rs.15000 to Rs. 9000 per unit.  Not a penny of these “rewards” went to the starving and dying workers.  In fact even their basic wages remained unaltered since 2003.  The term expired on the last wage agreement on 31 March 2003 , nothing has been done either by the unions or the government about this, despite persistent demands from the workers themselves.

But the false “crisis” created by the boss’s alliance did not last forever.   Sale price of tea leaves started to pick up from the start of this year.  The bosses responded by attacking the hard earned rights and benefits of workers.  Their purpose was to go back upon even the most basic rights outlined in the Tea Plantation Labour Act of 1951.  In this they were of course helped by their allies in the government and the judiciary.  The plan was to scrap all the rights and benefits due to permanent workers and putting them on par with temporary ones.  If they have their way, then not only this mean a whole sale casualisation of the work force but also depriving workers of all benefits such as housing, drinking water, educational provisions for the kids, crèche , health care, provident fund, gratuity, life insurance and of course ration.  Not one of these “benefits” has been “given” to the working class.  Each one of them has been the result of years of struggle and strikes going back to the colonial days.  Now the left supported UPA government at the centre wants to go back to working conditions that is reminiscent of days of the Raj.  According to a recent circular issued by the food directorate in June, tea workers of North Bengal are being barred from collecting rice and wheat at the usual subsidized rate.  This circular about food comes to a people that have just gone through the cycle of starvation deaths.

Enough is Enough

Although this strike thus comes in the wake of a long period of untold misery and exploitation, this has not made the workers any less militant or fearful.  They have forced the trade union leadership to move to an indefinite strike action, despite the latter’s best efforts to stop it from happening.  Their central demand has been to reject the proposed productivity-linked wages by the bosses in favour of raise in basic wages.  In concrete terms the demand is a hike from Rs.45.90 to Rs.88, without curtailment of any of the fringe benefits.  In this they have remained firm and united.  So far ten successive top-level tripartite talks involving the state labour minister, minister-in –charge for industry, all shades of planters’ associations (DBITA, TBITA, TAI, CCPA etc.) and representative federations of labour unions like Co-ordination Committee and Defence Committee have failed to convince them to give up on their rights.

The strike has had an overwhelming response from all sections of society.  On 19 July a 12-hour general strike was called by the federation of 27 tea labour unions in Darjeeling , Jalpaiguri, Coochbehar and North Dinajpur districts.  The bandh was a roaring success.   It crippled all the nerve-centres of this part of the country. This overwhelming support to the workers’ cause by ordinary people has given a great fillip to the striking workers’ confidence and brought back the legitimacy of the workers’ demands to the centre stage.

Throughout this heightened phase of workers’ struggle, Tarai Sangrami Cha-Shramik Union and Jalpaiguri Sangrami Cha Mazdoor Karmachari Union, both affiliated to AICCTU, have been active in organizing and campaigning to garner popular support for the movement. Militant rallies and mass-meetings have kept the strikers’ morale afloat even under tremendous odds.

This fight is not going to go away.  Union leaders are beginning to feel the enormity of the events and the force of the resolution of the striking workers.  Incidents of sporadic violence against union bureaucracy at Dalgaon Tea Estate, Chengmari Tea Estate in the Dooars area and Pahargoomiah Tea Estate in the Terai area still recent memory.

The bosses are counting on the government, specifically their mascot Buddhadev Bhattacharya, to bail them out, yet again.  The have “agreed” to a ridiculous and insulting wage raise of One Rupee!  The government, if they intend to salvage the situation at all, needs to come out unilaterally in favour of the striking workers and update their minimum wages as their counterparts have done in Tamil Nadu and Assam .

What hangs in balance is not simply the fate of the strikers.  The future of the labour movement in this region hinges on the success of this strike.  If the workers win, it will give confidence to others to strike out against their own bosses.  More importantly it will prove, concretely and decisively, that the forces of globalisation and capitalism can be beaten.  The following days have in them the possibility of breaking the deafening silence once and for all.

-- Abhijit Mazumdar and Basudev Bose