End Colonial Era Humiliation: Assam Tea Workers Prepare for A Strike Demanding Fixation of Minimum Wages

It is 76 years of India’s Independence, yet the racist profit seeking exploitation of Tea workers continues unabated. The tea estates of North Bengal and Assam carry the colonial legacy of inhuman exploitation of the tribes who were brought from Jharkhand and adjacent areas in the early nineteenth century by the colonial rulers. Since then, the mechanism for earning super profit by the owners of tea estates is kept intact What else could explain the fact that till now the governments refuse to fix minimum wages for tea workers?

In Assam, there are about 1.1 million tea workers working in 932 registered tea gardens. Just like North Bengal, tea workers of Assam have also been denied minimum wages for quite long. The tea workers, also known as tea tribes, are not just exploited, but have also fought glorious battles for dignity and rights since colonial times.  In recent history, the tea workers fought a significant battle demanding minimum wages in the later part of 1980s when the Asom Gana Parishad came to power in Assam. All Tea Tribe Student Association (ATTSA) demanded an increase in wages from Rs 13 to Rs 25. The Asom Sangrami Chah Sramik Sangha (ASCSS, now affiliated to AICCTU) was formed on 4th November, 1989 and joined the movement demanding increase in wages. However, the demand for ensuring minimum wages for tea workers was never implemented by the government. But the spirited struggles of the tea workers for minimum wages continued.

During the second term of the AGP government, the demand for Sunday Wages was raised. Subsequently, there was a change of government in the state. Tarun Gogoi became the Chief Minister of the Congress led government in 2001. This period was also marked by a greater consolidation of the tea tribe community and larger representation in the state assembly as well as Lok Sabha. Still, the Congress government failed to declare increased minimum wages and failed to implement any minimum wages for tea workers.

Later, with the change of political climate in the country and with the emergence of BJP as a ruling party after 2014 Loksabha elections, fixation of minimum wages was once again promised for tea workers. The same promise was repeated during the 2016 Assembly elections also. The BJP has been ruling both at the centre and the state since then. While Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister of India, Sarbananda Sonowal became the Chief Minister of a BJP led government in Assam. Pallab Losan Das, the labour minister in Sarbananda Sonowal government belonged to the tea community. With a change of government and a labour minister from the community itself, the tea workers expected that the status quo in terms of their wages would change and the government would respect its pre-election promises.
The labour commissioner of Assam calculated the legal minimum wage as per the Minimum Wages Act and as directed by the Supreme Court, and proposed the minimum wages to be fixed at Rs 351.33 per day and submitted his proposal to the Wage Advisory Board in 2018. Shamefully, the Sonowal government, rather than accepting the proposal by the Labour Commissioner and implementing minimum wages for tea workers, sent the proposal to an one man committee under the pressure of CCPA (Consultative Committee of Planters Association) and derailed, once again, the process of fixation of minimum wages for tea workers.

Shocked by the blatant betrayal by the government, the joint platform of Trade Unions, the JACTWW called for a 12 hour strike on 20th November, 2018. The impact of the strike was huge and workers of more than 600 tea gardens participated in the strike. While recommendations of the one man committee were never submitted, the Assam government went on to revise the interim wages for tea workers, continuing the age old tactics of denying the workers of their rightful wages.
The BJP managed to win 2019 Loksabha election in the backdrop of a nation-wide communal and ethnic polarisation orchestrated by the RSS-BJP combine that made an impact on the politics of Assam. While fixation of minimum wages for tea workers remained unaddressed, a nationwide lockdown was imposed in 2020. The owners of tea estates refused to pay workers their lockdown wages. After a persistent battle by the ASCSS, around ten thousand workers have been paid their full lock down wages now.

In the assembly election of 2021, the BJP came back to power, this time with a change of Chief Minister. Himanta Biswa Sarma became the new Chief Minister. Emboldened by subsequent electoral victories, the BJP government no longer felt the compulsion for fixation of minimum wages. As an eyewash, only some interim increase was announced. As the betrayal by the BJP government on the question of fixation of minimum wages became more than evident, scope of a renewed momentum of the tea workers’ movement has become imminent. Assessing the potential of a tea workers’ upsurge against its betrayal, the BJP government is now using another ploy to divert the anger of tea workers. The Tea Tribe Welfare Department has been renamed as Tea Tribe and Adivasi Welfare Department, indicating acceptance of the term adivasi for the tea tribes. Needless to mention, the change of nomenclature has come with no implication for the welfare of the tea tribes when their basic rights such as fixation of minimum wages continue to be ignored. The Chief Minister’s loyalty to the owners of tea estates has become much more obvious with the CM himself playing the role of a mediator, ignoring the wage Advisory Board. This has set a dangerous precedent because the CM is attempting to fix minimum wages based on negotiations instead of fixing it based on well established principles of fixing minimum wages. Fixing minimum wages cannot be a negotiable one because it depends on various factors including price levels and need for energy to perform the requisite work which is decided by scientific criteria.
In such a backdrop, the JACTWW, the joint platform of struggle of Trade Unions has decided to intensify the battle for ensuring fixation of minimum wages for tea workers. A complete strike on 29th November has been announced. Subsequently a long march passing through all gardens and connecting all workers has been planned from January onwards culminating in a Wage Mahasabha in February.
The need of the time is to wage a decisive battle for fixation of minimum wages for tea workers defeating all ploys of diversion by the government. n