DIBRUGARH, Oct 18 – The All Adivasi Students’ Association of Assam (AASAA) has come down hard on the tea industry in Assam for trying to repress the demand for implementation of the Minimum Wages Act in tea gardens by terming it as an ‘unrealistic demand.
The demands for increase in the wages and other benefits, made by the tea garden workers and their associated organisations like AASAA are not only realistic, but legally required, AASAA president Raphael Kujur has said. The Adivasi organisation has refuted the views expressed by tea industry on wages during the recent meeting in Guwahati with Union Minister of State for Commerce and Industry Nirmala Sitharaman. The organisation also reacted to recent media reports where the industry sources have tried to justify present wage in tea estates of Assam.
The AASAA leader particularly criticised chairman of Indian Tea Association, Bobby Bhargava for trying to justify the low wages in tea estate by talking about fringe benefits of the workers in the tea industry. “The tea industry of Assam is not above the law. The
Plantation Labour Act (PLA), a Central legislation passed in 1951 to ‘provide for the welfare of labourers, and to regulate the conditions of workers,’ applies not only to the tea industry, as chairman Bobby Bhargava erroneously stated, but applies to plantations who also grow coffee and rubber. The PLA requires that benefits such as medical, housing, water and education services are provided free of cost to all the workers. The PLA in combination with the Minimum Wage Act, 1948 clearly states that costs associated with these benefits cannot be included as part of minimum wage. As the Union Minister of State for Commerce and Industry Nirmala Sitharaman rightly noted recently that cash and benefits are different and cannot be clubbed together as minimum wage. The industry’s claim that the situation in the south cannot be compared to Assam is disingenuous. Tea plantations in the South are also subject to the same requirements of the PLA. There is therefore nothing that can adequately justify the huge disparity in wages between plantations in Assam and the South. The statement made by top industry officials reveals a deliberate and continued strategy of the tea industry to deprive workers of their constitutional and statutory rights, the release stated.
ITA chairman, Bhargava reportedly made claims that the industry needed to be appreciated for taking care of workers from ‘womb to tomb’. But the Adivasi organisation has questioned – Are the tea garden workers bonded labourers? Are they captive slaves for which the tea owners have been using them “from womb to tomb”? Are TE workers not the citizens of India? According to AASAA, people in the plantations of Assam need the freedom from bondage of Colonial tea industry. “Give them just wage and they will take care of themselves,” the release added.
AASAA has also demanded that ITA chairman answer why infant mortality and maternal mortality rate are the highest in the tea industry of Assam if they were concerned about the workers from ‘womb to tomb’. He must make public the findings of the health organisations like NRHM, health departments and UNICEF etc., while studying the root cause of the infant and maternal mortality rates in tea estates. The chairman’s remark only demonstrates that a root problem is the industry's stubborn denial of ground realities. The time is now to ensure that workers are paid their just wages, and that the industry is held accountable to the law, the release said.
Further, AASAA has claimed that the tea industry was misleading the nation by stating that the workers were brought to work in gardens in Assam with assurance that they would be given all benefits other than the cash wages. The truth is that the TE workers were forcefully and treacherously brought to Assam. No assurances were made or agreement were signed between the tea industry and the then workers to enjoy fringe benefits other then cash wages in tea estates, as claimed by the tea industry.
This truth can be traced in the age old folk songs (Faki diye anilo Assam) of the TE workers and in several well researched literatures, the release added.