The labour welfare department of Assam has set up a minimum wages advisory board in a bid to fix the minimum wages of daily-wage labourers employed in the state’s tea gardens. This is a departure from earlier practice, where minimum wages were decided on the basis of bilateral discussions between tea garden owners and a labour union, represented by the Congress-affiliated Assam Chah Majdoor Sangha.

With an annual production of over a million tonnes, Assam accounts for more than half of India’s tea output. According to state government data, the state’s tea industry, in spite of exacerbating pressures, provides average daily employment to almost 7 lakh people. As things stand currently, these daily wage labourers earn a minimum of Rs 137 in cash for each day of their labour in addition to other benefits. The Plantation Labour Act, 1951 regulates the wages of tea-garden workers, their duty hours and the amenities the tea gardens are supposed to provide them.

Minimum wage lower than state-mandated amount

Although the state-mandated minimum daily wage for unskilled labourers in Assam is Rs 250, the tea garden owners’ collective, the Consultative Committee of Planters Association, has so far strongly resisted any intervention on the government’s part to increase the minimum wage. In July 2015, when the state government issued a draft notification to hike the cash component of the minimum wage from the existing Rs 115 to Rs 143.50, the Consultative Committee of Planters Association approached the Gauhati High Court and managed to get a stay on the proposal.

While the owners’ collective maintains that the daily wage of an unskilled worker rises to Rs 280 per day with the inclusion of the other benefits the workers are entitled to, labour unions disagree. According to Bibek Das of the Sadau Assam Sangrami Cha Shramik Union, a labour union affiliated to the Communist Party of India (Marxist-Leninist), the total wage including the benefits didn’t exceed Rs 160. “The ration adds up to Rs 14.20, the firewood less than Rs 5 and the dry wood around Rs 2,” claimed Das. “To say it is Rs 280, is just a lie.”

The last time minimum wage for tea workers was discussed was back in February, 2015. An understanding signed between the Consultative Committee of Planters Association and the Assam Chah Majdoor Sangha agreed upon an incremental hike over three years beginning 2015. According to the three-year agreement, the minimum hike was retrospectively increased from the existing Rs 94 to Rs 115 beginning January, 2015. The amount was further increased to Rs 126 and Rs 137 in the subsequent years.

Lukewarm response

The latest proposal by the state government to set up a minimum wages advisory board has been received with lukewarm responses by advocacy groups and labour unions. Stephen Ekka of Pajhra, an Assam-based charity, which works for Adivasi rights, said the while the development was positive on the face of it, he had apprehensions about how it would actually work out.

“Earlier they used to decide on the basis of a bilateral agreement between the owners’ and a Congress-led labour union, which was hand-in-glove with the owners,” said Ekka, adding that the negotiation process was shrouded in a lack of transparency. “Decisions were always taken arbitrarily, but at least the Left-leaning unions like Sadau Assam Sangrami Cha Shramik Union would make some noise and have some say. Now what they have done is included the BJP’s labour unions, which don’t have any real representation among tea workers in the state. On top of that, they have removed the Left-leaning labour unions, which actually speak for the workers.”

The wage committee set up the state government consists of five state government delegates including the labour minister – and an equal number of representatives from the tea garden owners’ side and labour unions. Among the five labour unions, three are affiliated to the Congress while two are allied with the Bharatiya Janata Party. In addition, there are two “invitee” members – the director of Assam’s Economics and Statistics department and the state’s labour commissioner.

William Topno of Peoples’ Action for Development, a non-profit that works for and among marginalised tea garden workers, said real change could only come when labourers were made part of the negotiating process. “The Assam Chah Majdoor Sangha has always been an extension of the tea garden owners,” he claimed. “They have never bargained hard enough for higher minimum wages in spite of the government’s directive that unskilled labourers be paid at least Rs 250, instead settling for funds from owners for elections, etc.”

Topno said any wage under Rs 350 wasn’t enough to sustain in the current times. “There are tea gardens in the south where labourers are paid as much as Rs 312,” he stated. “Assam tea sells for much more than those gardens, so why can’t workers be paid as much here?

Das of the Sadau Assam Sangrami Cha Shramik Union said the composition in the new wage board reeked of “deliberate lack of representation”. “The Congress bodies have always spoken for the owners,” he claimed. “Now they have added the BJP unions, so who will really speak for the labourers?”

Being pragmatic?

Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangha general secretary Dileswar Tanti said it was unfair to accuse them of not lobbying hard enough for higher wages. “They say we don’t speak for workers, but we have to be practical,” said Tanti. “So many tea gardens have shut down. Now if we demand wages that are too high, tea gardens will shut en masse and lakhs of people will lose their jobs. Who will be responsible then?”

Tanti added that his organisation would not propose a minimum wage on its own and would instead see how the discussion played out among the other stakeholders in the board. “We will be blamed for quoting too low a figure, so we might as well wait it out,” he said.

The Assam Branch Indian Tea Association, the most powerful of all owner groups, refused to comment on the matter, or suggest how much of a hike they’d be comfortable with.