Darjeeling tea signs bonus pact; owners asked to shell out Rs 60 cr

After an estimated loss of Rs 400 crore this year on account of suspended operations for a little over three months, the 87 tea gardens in the Darjeeling region will have to shed a combined Rs 60 crore as bonus payment to workers, even as there are no clear signs of operations resuming in the estates.

On Friday early morning, after prolonged bargaining and and a tripartite meeting in Siliguri, the tea trade unions (TUs), the West Bengal government and the industry associations – Indian Tea Association (ITA) and Darjeeling Tea Association (DTA) — reached an agreement to pay an estimated 100,000 workers bonus at 19.75 per cent.

The larger groups have multiple gardens in the Darjeeling-Dooars area and in Assam; they should have the capacity. Single estate owners, 30 per cent of the Darjeeling tea industry, will be hard hit. Industry sources said an estimated 60 gardens had authorised ITA and DTA to negotiate and discuss when operations could be resumed. It is thought that the other 27 gardens might not agree to the 19.75 per cent bonus demand, implying these might remain closed even after normalcy returns to the region. Under these circumstances, the Darjeeling tea industry, already under financial and production stress, will further feel the pinch.

Unlike previous years, the Darjeeling estates will be paying the bonus in two instalments. Azam Monem, chairman of ITA, said half of it, estimated at Rs 30 crore, will be paid provided “normalcy returns”. The other half will be given after the gardens resume full-scale operations.

After political parties in the Darjeeling hills called for total shutdown, an unusual situation arose, as neither had the TUs given a strike notice and nor had the gardens issued notice of a lockout. “Hence, the gardens have remained open, although in an unoperational stage,” Monem said.

The ‘normalcy clause’, says the industry, translates to labourers returning to their respective gardens and resuming the daily work routine, and the clerical and managerial staff also resuming work. A garden owner said he was still unsure when operations would re-commence. 

Although a portion of the workers have returned to their respective estates, in Rohini and Kurseong, this is not enough for the management to restart operations.

Further, TU leaders who attended the meeting said they'd try to coax workers to return but were unsure of the response. After the Gorkhaland agitation gained momentum in mid-June, nearly all labourers, who are mostly of Nepali ethnicity, joined the political movement to achieve separate statehood and left the gardens. The rest were unable to attend to their duties, as total shutdown was imposed by the political outfits, prevalent till today.

Previously, after holding two rounds of talks with the hill parties to end the shutdown, the state government asked the tea estates to sort the bonus issue and resume operations.

Faced with an impending labour shortage of at least 50 per cent and unsure when operations would resume, estate owners stated that this year, after losing the prime second flush (crop), the industry would be losing the residual rain and autumn flushes as well. It will result in the industry losing 80 per cent of the normal annual revenue of Rs 500 crore.

"We have to first clear all the overgrown weeds and bushes and then see the heath of the tea bushes. Thereafter, irrigation work needs to be restored. Hence, except the first flush which was harvested before the shutdown began in June, we are going to lose all the other flushes this season," said S S Bagaria, chairman of Bagaria Group.

On the positive side, ITA feels if the operations resume in mid-October, the estates might be able to prepare for the next season's harvest. However, it is unsure of the quality.

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