When it's Durga Puja time, bonus be far behind? At least that's what 10 lakh workers in about 850 tea gardens in Assam are used to thinking. But the captains of the Rs 3,000-crore turnover industry have different plans in mind this time. With the industry going through one of its worst phases in recent memory, most companies have said they are in no position to pay even the statutory 8.33 per cent bonus, leave alone the 20 per cent incentive that the tea garden workers in Assam are used to for the past two decades. Trouble over non-payment of bonus is likely to erupt as the festive season gets nearer.
The 10-day Durga Puja festivals, the time around which bonus is paid, is early this year, starting on October 2. With less than a month to go , the stalwarts of the industry are a worried lot. As Robin Borthakur, additional secretary, Bharatiya Cha Parishad (BCP), says: "The Assam tea industry has been going through one of its worst phases in history. Price realization is down, costs are rising, and productivity is stagnating. Naturally, companies are cutting costs, leading to friction between managements and workers' unions."
But neither the Assam government nor the union leaders are convinced with this plea. Rameshwar Dhanowar, Assam's labour minister and himself a member of a tea worker's family, says: "We feel the companies are exaggerating the crisis. There is no reason why bonus can't be paid." The government had in fact constituted a committee under Dhanowar's chairmanship to look into this matter. All Companies were accordingly asked to submit their balance sheets of the previous financial year to the committee by August 30. But even four days after the deadline was over, just 36 companies have complied with the government order. The committee has therefore not been able to take any decision on question of paying bonus so far.
For nearly two decades up to 2000, workers were routinely paid 20 per cent of their annual wages as bonus.
For the past two years though, most tea companies have resorted to paying the bare minimum 8.33 per cent
bonus, creating resentment among workers. Admits Madhusudan Khandiat, veteran general secretary of the
powerful Asom Cha Mazdoor Sangha (ACMS): "Payment of lower bonus has definitely made the workers angry
since most of them feel that getting 20 per cent bonus is their birth right. Despite our best efforts we have
not been able to convince the workers that the minimum bonus according to law is 8.33."
Apart from the immediate problems about payment of bonus and wages, the industry is faced with new developments. Gone are the days when workers accepted whatever their leaders told them. "The younger generation, with better education and exposure, is unwilling to accept the working conditions in the gardens. They are militant in their demands and do not listen to the seasoned leaders," a senior planter says.
ACMS, which has nearly 5 lakh members out of a total tea workforce of eight lakh in Assam, is by far the most dominant union in the state's industry. But even ACMS is now finding it difficult to reign in the rising demands for better living conditions and increased payments. The increasing militancy among garden workers, who have traditionally been a staunch ally of the Congress, is reflected in the rising number of assault cases on top management personnel.
As Dhiraj Kakoti, Secretary of the Assam Branch of Indian Tea Association (ABITA) puts it: "Assaults
on top tea managers by their own workers, virtually unheard of in the past decades, have increased alarmingly
over the past five years. In our member gardens there have been 29 cases of severe assault on tea managers by
workers between 1998 and now, resulting in death of at least three tea executives." During the same
period, the number of abductions was nine. Militants also killed four executives in this five-year period. The
uncertain situation in the gardens has had unexpected fallout. Sources in the industry say at least 50 per
cent managerial staff has applied for leave just prior to or during the festive season, just to avoid facing
the workers' ire.
Quite clearly, the Assam tea industry, which produces more than 50 per cent of India's total tea output, is witnessing a churning that will have far reaching consequences on its working. Competition from other tea producing countries, rising costs, stagnant productivity and most significantly, falling domestic consumption, has brought about a major crisis in the tea industry. Labour trouble, virtually unknown till a decade ago has only added to the worries of the top brass.