Trouble Brews At Bengal Tea Garden Over ‘Illegal Takeover’ Bid

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Kolkata: Tension is brewing at Birpara tea garden in West Bengal’s Jalpaiguri with around 1.300 workers staging an agitation against alleged takeover of the garden by Merico Agro Industries.

The workers became restive following local media reports about a meeting organised by the West Bengal Labour Department between trade union (TU) leaders and the management of Merico Agro Industries.

The workers have three demands —as per a Supreme Court order, their dues should be paid before the opening of the garden; all the provident fund dues that have not been paid by the management should be paid; and the new management should directly come to the garden and make an agreement with the workers.

But on Tuesday, over 500 workers from Birpara tea garden gathered at the plantation’s factory as Merico Agro representatives tried to open the garden, which the workers said was illegal. The new management reopened on an interim basis. Each worker of the estate was paid Rs 1,000 by the new management.

The workers demanded that the new employer should talk directly to them, instead of holding secret meetings with a select few union leaders. They insisted that the management must clarify how their dues of around Rs 10 crore would be paid to them.

The protesting workers said the new management was ready to negotiate but a union leader close to the ruling Trinamool Congress did not let them do so. The workers’ representatives were not even allowed inside the factory.

Paschim Banga Khet Mazoor Samity’s Anuradha Talwar said, “The workers demanded to know how their dues would be paid. Part of the union, which is with the new management were inside. The local MP, John Barla, and the MLA, Manoj Tigga, both from the BJP, who were also present, tried to organise a negotiation between the management and the workers. Initially, they agreed to allow only 50 workers. But a faction of the TMC union disrupted the process. They also heckled the MLA and the MP.

“Workers of Jateswar division, along with the support of a large section of main division, have decided to continue the struggle as the takeover of the garden is in contravention of a high court order that forbids Duncans India from giving the garden to any other owner. Legal action is also being considered,” she added.

According to the Tea Board, the total dues, to be paid to the workers are Rs 6,33,83,000 (till 2016- gratuity not included). If gratuity and interest is included this amount would be more than Rs 10 crore. The workers have been only paid an interim relief of Rs 1,76,44,000 by the government of West Bengal due to a Supreme Court order.

The tea garden was abandoned by the Duncans in 2015. It was temporarily opened in 2017 by them, but was again abandoned in September 2019. After this, the Jateshwar division of Birpara garden made a collective of their own to run the garden.

According to a source, around 1,300 workers started working on 405 acres. Since then, the workers have received Rs 10 per kg for plucking leaves. Thus, many workers were able to earn around Rs 250-300 per day during the season. The collective started saving and has now saved so much by selling green leaves that each worker of Birpara-Jateshwar division received Rs 11,280 as bonus in 2020.

Dinesh Sharma, a plantation worker at Birpara tea garden, said they had gone to meet the MLA on Monday. “He assured us that he is with us on the issue. On Tuesday, Tigga had come to Birpara garden during the reopening. He was manhandled along with the MP, Barla by a section of the TMC-supported union leaders. We were not allowed to go in. There was no one to listen to us. The dues also include payment for one-and-half months’ salary. We have come to know through newspapers that we will be paid in installments – one in Holi, one before Durga Puja and then another on Dec 25. We even visited the PF office 2-3 times in Jalpaiguri. But, but nothing materialised.”

Another worker, Parmeshwar Oraon, working at the garden since 1983, said, “After the Duncans left in October, 2019 we have been running the garden as we could not have left it go ashtray. We all came together and joined work. We cleared the garden but when the time came to pluck the leaves, the lockdown happened. The leaves outgrew and were destroyed. After the government allowed limited access to the gardens we again had to plant anew. The opening of the garden is illegal.”

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