In an interview given to the Himalayan Beacon, published on Tuesday, CITU has declared that they would be launching an agitation for the workers of Darjeeling, Terai and Duars from May 1. The agitation, however, will mostly focus on the demands of the tea garden and hotel workers. This can be perceived as an affront to the Darjeeling-based Binay Tamang-Anit Thapa faction of the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha (GJM). This faction had earlier declared that the hills will not witness any more strikes. However, the workers’ agitation will most probably be too prickly for the faction to handle, considering that they form the core base of voters in the hills.
As far as the tea garden workers are concerned CITU has three demands; that the workers be brought under the Minimum Wages Act, 1948, that they should receive the ration money owed to them, and that they should receive land rights.
Tea gardens are not one of the Scheduled Employments in West Bengal under the Minimum Wages Act. The issue of the tea garden workers began in 2014 when they had agitated to be brought under the Minimum Wages Act. In 2015, a tripartite agreement was signed between the workers’ unions, the owners’ union and the West Bengal Government. The agreement stipulated a gradual increase in the minimum wage over a period of three years. In 2017 another meeting was called to revise the minimum wages agreed to in 2015, other than the Trinamool Congress affiliated unions, all the others stayed away in protest against the move. CITU in the interview has alleged that three years since the first agreement was signed, the workers are yet to receive the agreed minimum wages. This also ties into their demand that the ration money owed to workers be paid. As a result, they demand that the entire amount owed to the workers be paid, and that tea gardens also come under the Act.
The issue of land rights is another sore point. According to the CITU representative, the provisions of The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers (Recognition of Forest Rights) Act, 2006, has not been extended to the tea garden workers. When the tea gardens were first established in Darjeeling, the colonial planters had secured large areas of forest which they converted into plantations. However, not all the area claimed by the gardens has been cleared. It is in these forested parts where the workers have established their homes. Thus generations of tea garden workers have lived on these lands. On this basis, after the 2006 Act came into force, the workers were entitled to hold title over the land on which they live.
The issues highlighted by the CITU representative for the hospitality industry workers focused on; wages for the period of the 2017 agitation, that benefits such as gratuity, provident fund, employees state insurance, and health insurance be extended to them and that they should be able to avail leave on government holidays. Here too, they had launched a movement in 2015, seeking that minimum wages be fixed based on the type ofestablishment – a small restaurant would pay less than a five-star hotel. The movement resulted in a bipartite agreement with the hotel owners’ association. However, the agreement has yet to be implemented. In this regard, the CITU representative has declared expanded demands for the hospitality industry workers.
The CITU representative also mentioned that though the agitation at present is focused on the plight of the tea garden and hospitality industry workers, the agitation would be for the rights of all the workers in the region. He specifically mentioned the hospital staff, construction workers and migrant workers in this regard. He also stated that the unions had submitted memorandums to the concerned owners and that the memorandums contained an ultimatum that unless their demands are met, they would launch an agitation from May 1 till the end of July. This point is significant since the agitation would cripple the tourism industry.
The Binay Tamang – Anit Thapa faction of the GJM has stated that they are pro-business and would not allow any agitations or strikes in the hills. However, they appear to have forgotten the origins of the GJM’s founder, Bimal Gurung. Gurung came from a family of tea garden workers. His residence and the nucleus of the GJM’s power lay in Patleybas, a notoriously poor and rough neighbourhood on the fringes of Darjeeling. One of Gurung’s most popular moves among the tea garden workers in the Darjeeling hills was in 2011 when he was able to secure a raise in their wages. Prior to his intervention, the workers were getting Rs. 67 per day, he was, however, able to raise it to Rs. 90. This worked out as an increase of around 34 percent. At present, the agitation that has been threatened seeks to raise this wage further.
Chances are that the Binay Tamang-Anit Thapa faction will intervene at least in the hills to prevent the agitation from taking place. In the Dooars and Terai, the Bimal Gurung faction still holds sway, it is unlikely that they would miss an opportunity to bring their rival faction down a peg. If the matter is not resolved by May 1, Darjeeling will lose another year of tourism revenue. However, this clearly appears to be a gamble the workers are willing to risk