A report by Sumendra Tamang on the tea workers’ ongoing strike in Happy Valley garden in Darjeeling.
While the virus ravaged world is seeing mass deaths and near collapse of the global economy, something has once again been proved to us. Something that we should have known and realised a lot earlier – that we humans are nothing as far as the forces of nature are concerned. We should have also realized that this system of capitalist globalization is internally damaged from within.
On one hand, a section of people who own large pools of capital, are using and appropriating this crisis situation as an excuse to curtail the rights of the working class of every strata, be it the white collar ones, the organized or the most unorganized ones. The Indian state has been constantly trying to corner the workers in the name of ‘ease of doing business. Workers are not being paid their wages, their rights are being curtailed by the pro capitalist labour reforms, hire and fire system, and workers’ layoffs. All in the name of pandemic and measures to control it. We must have all understood by now that while Corona is just a virus, this system is the real culprit. Yes, capitalism is the Pandemic.
The brand of Darjeeling tea and it’s hollow reality
The brand of Darjeeling tea, romanticized for its taste and flavours, since the colonial past, often makes it one of the most valued commodities in the entire world. There must be a very few, who haven’t at all heard the chronicles of Darjeeling tea.
About 2 km from the town of Darjeeling, Happy Valley tea garden is a space well known to everyone — the locals and the tourists alike. Even if they don’t know where the garden is actually located, most of them have heard about it. Happy Valley is one among the 14 tea gardens owned by Mr. Sanjay Bansal, who is noted to be quite ‘notorious, ‘ among the tea garden owners of Darjeeling. The garden consists of 160 female workers, 96 male workers, 7 staff and 34 sub staff, a total of 297 workers in aggregate. The nexus between tea garden maliks and the state has put the workers under grave threat by continuing with full production in the tea gardens of Darjeeling, Terai and Dooars, during almost the entire length of the lockdown to contain the spread of the virus. To the garden owners, the ‘precious’ first flush of green tea is more important than the lives of the workers, who pluck, manufacture and process the tea.
None of the 297 workers of the Happy Valley tea estate have been paid their daily wages for the last 42 days of the lockdown period. Reports are also coming in that the same state of affairs persists in the other 13 tea gardens owned by Sanjay Bansal. Workers have complained against the management and Mr Sanjay Bansal, regarding the health protocol mismanagement during the entire phase of this pandemic. But, till date, only one mask has been distributed per worker and no other means or facilities have been provided by Bansal.
We must realise that workers’ lives are at a great risk here. Still, they are forced to work because if they don’t, they do not have any other source of livelihood and sustainability. This is the time for the first flush of Darjeeling tea — the finest in the world with huge demand in the global tea market. But the workers of these tea gardens are not being paid even the bare minimum wage. To add more to the stress, right now, they are not even being paid even their daily wage of 176 rupees which is far below the minimum wage. 24 workers, who have retired, haven’t been paid their gratuity amount.
A total amount of 45 to 50 lakhs from the workers’ Provident Fund amount, has not been deposited by the owner, Mr Bansal, at the PF office since 2019. Workers claim, approximately 4 – 4.5 lakhs from FLO funds have been used by Sanjay Bansal for his own purposes. This money is supposed to be used for the welfare of the workers, as far as the concept of fair trade is concerned.
Like almost all the tea gardens of Darjeeling, Terai and Dooars, the health infrastructure here at Happy Valley, is a story of broken promises. Most of the provisions under the Plantations Labour Act, 1951 and West Bengal Plantation Labour rules, 1956, such as, raincoat, umbrellas, proper hospital and health facilities, basic education, creche, canteens, etc are almost non-existent in these tea gardens of North Bengal.
The workers of Happy Valley tea garden have stopped the dispatch of the final processed tea from the factory premises. The workers plan to continue with the strike until all of their dues are paid.
Not Just a strike
This is not the first time that the workers of the tea industry are on strike. The legacy of such strikes started soon after the independence of India. On the 25th of June 1955, the tea garden workers of Margaret’s Hope tea estate, situated below Sonada, had staged a rally demanding proper wages, bonus, maternity leave, abolition of Hatta Bahar (any time firing and forced exodus of workers at the will of the malik), amongst other things. 6 workers, including a pregnant woman worker and a 14 years old kid had been shot dead by the police acting under the whips of the maliks.
This was the first instance in West Bengal, after independence, when workers were shot dead for demanding their rights. Before independence, under colonial rule, many such rebellions by the tea-workers took place in the plantations and they are recorded in the oral histories. After 65 years of ‘Indian independence,’ it’s ironic that the tea garden workers of Happy Valley are on strike for similar demands. The Minimum Wages Act, 1948, which was passed one year after the independence, has not been implemented in the tea garden industry of West Bengal (also Assam ).
Till date, wages are fixed by the diktats and the benevolence of the tea garden owners. Every year, during yearly bonus (September- October), these malik’s parrot the lie of financial loss and refuse to pay the workers their hard-earned rights. The situation is the same in almost every tea garden of West Bengal. Everywhere, it’s the same story of amplified oppression and exploitation.
The workers of Happy Valley are apprehensive. They wonder, If this is the way Sanjay Bansal is treating them during the golden period of the first flush, one can well imagine, what will be his attitude during the dry lean seasons, when there will be no green leaves to pluck. The workers’ apprehension is valid and real. If during the most lucrative of the seasons, the owners are not paying workers their dues, will the same owners pay them during the time of reinvestment, the dry winter season?
Corona can’t be an excuse to curtail the rights and wages of tea garden workers …….
The onus of every crisis is always laid down upon the workers of the tea gardens, whether it be the Gorkhaland agitation of 1986 and 2017 or the current pandemic. It is normally implied that during the first flush, the management wants things to run smoothly, so that maximum production can be achieved and the profits soars. But this year, uninterrupted continuation of production even during the pandemic, and then depriving the workers of their rightful dues, on the part of Sanjay Bansal, is a symbolic indicator of a larger reality, that lawlessness has been the strategy of capitalism during this pandemic, and it’s subsequent global economic crisis (some even say a global recession). On the other hand, amidst all this, both the state and the central governments have played the role of indifferent observers, and have only mouthed false promises, as far as, safeguarding the rights of workers are concerned.
For example, it is such an irony that all this is happening right under the nose of the District Magistrate’s office. The same district administration, during last year, when the tea garden workers staged a rally from Sonada, put an end to it by slamming criminal charges on many workers. On the other hand, inflation has skyrocketed. The price of food items, transportation fares, essential materials, vegetables, and other essential items have gone off the roof. People do not have cash in their hands and then on top of everything, attacks on the working class are being amplified everyday. This is precisely the inhumane nature of capitalism in the most crude form. Not all can be the “better off” in this system — for one to rise, many others will have to fall. Within such a system, if one has to profit, exploitation of many has to follow.
Be it changing the labour laws and bypassing hard achieved rights of workers, be it the bringing in labour codes in the name of ‘ease of doing business, ‘ the respective governments have shown where their loyalty actually lies. As is obvious, their loyalty lies in the pockets of the bourgeoisie, the capitalists — the minority — who take the major share in the social surplus. On the brighter side, the protests are signs of the fact that no matter how intense the oppression gets, resistance will never die.
We must all raise our voices against such barbarism. Meanwhile, in a meeting with the labour department on 2nd July 2020, no fruitful decision could be achieved, and the workers’ representatives walked away from the stalemate situation created by a combination of the incapability of the labour department and the stubbornness from the owners camp. As of now, the workers are firm in their decision to stop the dispatch of processed tea until all their dues are paid. The struggle continues …
Sumendra Tamang is a social and cultural activist from Darjeeling.