Elections in India are a time when the political parties in the fray use every kind of deception to fool the people. This is very clearly demonstrated in Assam, where the daily wages of tea garden workers is a hot election issue with each party outdoing the other in making promises to increase the wages.
The BJP had made an election promise to the Assam tea garden workers in 2016 that it will increase their minimum wages to Rs.351 per day if it was voted in. It did not keep its promise after coming to power in the state. On 19th March 2021, Congress Party leader Rahul Gandhi promised that if voted to power in Assam, his party would give a minimum wage of Rs 365 to tea plantation workers of the state. He added that his party will also establish a special ministry to solve the problems of tea workers in the state.
However, the experience of the state’s eight lakh tea workers has taught them that election promises are broken. The promises are made to placate the people and not with any intent to implement. They continue to live and work in inhuman conditions and on very meagre incomes. They have very little left for their children’s education or any other expenditure after buying the very essentials. Tea garden workers in Assam get pathetic daily wages of Rs 167 per day, while the workers in the southern areas of the state are getting an even lower wage of Rs. 145 per day. The daily wage is fixed through agreements between workers’ unions and the industry. But the planters’ association which represents the management of the tea estates is able to push the wages down to well below minimum wages in the state.
Tea wages in Assam have remained low since long. Over the last two decades trade unions have consistently demanded uniform minimum wages across the state, as wages negotiated through collective bargaining remained very low. The workers have repeatedly struggled for fixed minimum wages of Rs.350.The capitalist tea garden owners have resisted introduction of minimum wage. They have maintained that they are providing other benefits and cited these as compensation in lieu of minimum wage.
In December 2018, the Joint Action Committee for Tea Workers’ Wages (JACTWW) which represents eight organisations in the state called for protest actions across tea estates in support of the demand for minimum wage. The wages in the tea gardens are negotiated every 3 years, and the last agreement had expired in 2017. Since then, till February 2021, there has been no revision.
On 20th February 2021, with an eye on the elections, the Assam Government announced a hike of Rs 50 in the daily wage of tea garden workers. Through a gazette notification, the wage for daily rated tea plantation workers was raised from Rs 167 – by an interim amount of Rs 50 – to Rs 217 per day. However, on 10th March, the Guwahati High Court stayed the state government’s decision to increase daily wages to Rs 217 in response to a petition challenging the hike filed by the India Tea Association. This implies that 17 tea companies, which own 90% of some 800 tea estates in Assam, cannot be penalised if they do not pay the enhanced wages to the tea workers in the state. Following this, the tea gardens’ capitalist owners announced a raise of Rs.26 to their wages, in a cynical bid to pre-empt any protests.
According to law, tea estates are required to provide housing and sanitary toilets to workers. The reality is horrific. Workers’ homes are in a state of terrible disrepair and in some cases, cesspits overflowing into the living areas of people’s homes. Notwithstanding this, tea producers cite the cost involved in its providing housing and rations as justification for their paying extremely low wages. A combination of dismal living conditions and low wages has kept tea workers and their families malnourished and in poor health. Unhygienic living conditions have made them prone to diseases like diarrhoea, TB, meningitis and skin lesions.
So, while elections come and go every 5 years, the conditions of the tea workers remain the same. It is only a united and relentless struggle of the workers that can bring about better conditions.