Social Security Provisions for Assam’s Tea Garden Workers in Budget a Step Towards Amending Plantations Act

Centre has allocated Rs 771.10 crore for a social security scheme, which is likely a move towards doing away with the ‘in kind’ component of wages paid to the plantation labourers.

Tea garden workers pluck tea leaves at a tea garden estate in Poteya village, about 75 km from Siliguri April 26, 2006. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri/Files

Tea garden workers pluck tea leaves at a tea garden estate in Poteya village, about 75 km from Siliguri. Credit: Reuters/Rupak De Chowdhuri/Files

New Delhi: The Narendra Modi government seems to have taken the first decisive step towards amending the Plantation Labour Act, 1951, by dropping the ‘in kind’ component of labourers’ wages in this year’s Union Budget.

The Budget includes a significant allocation for a scheme to provide social security to the plantation workers of Assam.

The allocation of Rs 767 crore made under the Scheduled Castes Sub Plan, and Rs 4.10 crore under the Tribal Sub Plan, will go into formulating a scheme to provide facilities like healthcare, education, etc.

Until now, the labourers – amounting to over ten lakh in the state – have been claiming such facilities as a part of the ‘in kind’ component from the tea garden owners as per the Plantations Labour Act.

So typically, a tea garden in Assam would provide its labourers facilities like a hospital, a school, drinking water, living quarters and a recreation club besides maintaining the colony roads and sanitation facilities and providing firewood and 35 kg of rice and wheat per month at a subsided rate of Rs 54 paise per kg.

Garden owners have long been demanding the removal of the burden of the ‘in kind’ component from the labourers’ wages, arguing that providing social security and basic facilities are essentially the duty of the government.

On January 4, addressing a regional conference of labour ministers and principal secretaries of the northeastern states in Guwahati, union labour minister Bandaru Dattatreya categorically spoke of amending the Act to remove that component.

Dattatreya indicated that a new Bill reflecting the amendment would most likely be tabled in the budget session of the parliament.

“At present, under the Act, the wages of the plantation workers include cash as well as ration, healthcare and education services among others [as kind]. But we will amend the Act and make it mandatory to pay the wages in cash only and deposit it in the workers’ bank accounts,” he said.

However, Dattatreya’s declaration led to considerable confusion – both among the owners and the labourers and their union, the Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangh. The garden owners and their various bodies welcomed the move but at the same time expressed concerns about the ‘cash’ part.

They wanted the central government to clarify whether they would henceforth have to also pay the ‘kind’ part in ‘cash.’

Since the labourers have been demanding a hike in minimum daily wage, it was an added concern.

“This is the best news for the tea plantation workers of Assam in the last couple of decades. We overwhelmingly welcome the Centre’s move made in the Union Budget. The money should be spent with top priority on housing and sanitation,” said Bidyananda Barkakoty, the advisor of the North Eastern Tea Association, who was joyful in his initial reaction to the budgetary allocation.

He, however, also mentioned writing a letter to the secretary of the Ministry of Labour and employment on January 7, urging him to not tweak the definition of ‘wages’ in the Act.

His letter pointed to “the unique nature of the plantation industry built on customs and precedence” which, he argued, should therefore differentiate it from the other industries.

“Since this proposed amendment prefers to ignore the very basis of the genesis of the Act (he referred to the definition of ‘wages’ the 1951 Act borrowed from the Minimum Wages Act, 1948), equating the plantation industry with other industries, it would be a fair argument to pray for repeal of the Plantation Labour Act altogether. We, therefore, request for a status quo with respect to the definition of ‘wages’ under section 2(i) of the Plantation Labour Act, 1951,” the letter stated.

It also suggested “routing the government’s welfare schemes [meant for the labourers] through the [tea garden] management for better accountability.”

Speaking to The Wire from Dibrugarh, Assam, Dileswar Tanti, the general secretary of Chah Mazdoor Sangha, asked, “Who wouldn’t welcome such a scheme for the labourers but is it at the cost of the ‘in kind’ component of the wages? It is the duty of the government to provide social security to its citizens but is the government going to give the tea community such a facility by bartering the ‘in kind’ component of their wages?”

Tanti added, “We want the government to clear the air about the whole affair. We have been working on the ground for so many years but we are outraged at the government’s decision to go ahead with the amendment without consulting us. Assam has the largest number of tea garden labourers whom we represent. We should have been consulted.”

If the Act is amended, not just the tea garden labourers of Assam but all plantation workers – be it of rubber, tea or coffee – particularly in states like West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Kerala, would also lose the ‘in kind’ component of their wages.

“The February 1 declaration in the Budget is clearly a political decision. The tea garden labourers voted for the BJP government in Assam. So the Centre wants to keep its vote bank safe. If the government has decided to remove the in kind part of the wages, such a scheme should have been announced for all the plantation workers,” argued Gautam Ghosh, general secretary of Darjeeling Zilla Chia Kaman Mazdoor Union.

“The labourers of the Doars and Terai region produce the world famous Darjeeling tea but their condition is getting worse by the day. They are paid Rs 132 a day, the lowest in the organised sector. Neither the state government nor the Centre is bothered about them. Post demonetisation, many gardens have closed down, they have not been able to pay wages in cash. With gardens closed down, the facilities, including healthcare, are gone. Many labourers have died of starvation due to lack of regular salaries and joblessness. Anyway, the labourers in Bengal have stopped receiving ration for a long time now. Such a scheme should have come for the plantation workers of Bengal.”

Tea garden workers during a protest post demonetisation in North Bengal. Credit: Special arrangement

Tea garden workers during a protest post demonetisation in North Bengal. Credit: Special arrangement

In 2014, the Modi government took the first step towards removing the ‘in kind’ component of the workers’ salaries by suspending the bulk supply of additional quota of food grains meant for the tea industry which was to be used to provide subsidised ration to the workers. While the tea garden labourers of Bengal lost that facility since, those in Assam continue to get it after the Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangha got a stay order from the Gauhati high court in January 2015 on the Centre’s decision.

As per the provision, the Food Corporation of India allocates 7,600 metric tonnes of rice and wheat to the tea garden owners of Assam to provide subsidised ration at 55 paisa per kg.