Tea estate workers begin protest for increment in wagesThe tea estate owners have not increased the daily wages in four years, citing losses incurred during the Covid-19 pandemic and the ongoing recession, post-Covid.
Mani Bhjuel has been working as a labourer at the Chandragadi Tea Estate in Bhadrapur Municipality for the last 32 years. He earns Rs435 per day.
It's been four years and he has been working on the same daily wage even though the inflation has gone through the roof. He has requested his employer several times to increase his wage, but to no avail.
Bhjuel is not alone in facing the agony of low income and the high inflation rate.
Around 25,000 workers in the tea estates of Jhapa have been working in impoverished conditions for years.
The tea workers have now started agitation.
The agitated labourers have been protesting against the employers for an increment in their daily wages and also for their inclusion in the contribution-based social security fund for the last 15 days.
The Labour Act 2017 states that the minimum wage should be revised every two years.
“But the tea estates are reluctant to follow the rule, citing losses incurred during the Covid-19 pandemic and the ongoing recession,” said Bhujel.
“We need to strive every couple of years for decent wages and better working conditions.”
The workers have been demanding an increment of Rs87 in their daily wage. The tea estate owners are ready to increase it by only Rs30 though.
In addition, the workers have also demanded that they be enrolled in the contribution-based social security fund, but the estate owners are reluctant to do so, saying the entire tea industry has been stuffing from a downturn.
The labourers in the seven state-owned tea estates were declared to be enrolled in the contribution-based social security fund in the last fiscal year, but no such decision has been made regarding the workers in private tea estates.
Ramesh Parajuli, the representative of the estate owners, said: “The government has a provision to increase the wage every two years, even if we don’t have enough business. But the government has not supported us to export our products to third countries beyond India.”
“How can we increase the wage when there is no increment in the business?” Parajuli asked.
According to Durga Acharya, chief of the Labour and Employment Office in Jhapa, both parties seem to be reaching nowhere near a consensus, although several rounds of negotiations have already been held.
“Now we will request the Minimum Wage Determination Committee under the Ministry of Labour, Employment and Social Security to solve this issue,” said Acharya.
According to Suresh Mittal, president of the Tea Producers Association, the estate owners are not yet in a position to meet the demand of the labourers.
“Our cost of production is increasing year after year, but our products are not getting a fair price due to a recession and the Covid-19 pandemic,” Mittal said. “We can address the demand, only if the government intervenes. Otherwise, we can’t fulfil it.”
But the labourers union has declared that if their demands aren’t fulfilled by August 24, they will stop working altogether.
Deepak Tamang, the leader of the union, accused the government of not being serious enough to address the issues of labourers.
“If our demands aren’t addressed, we will halt work in all the tea estates and industries,” said Tamang.
According to the National Tea and Coffee Development Board, there are 86 tea estates in the district spread in around 5,700 hectares. In addition, there are nearly 3,000 small farmers who grow tea on 4,640 hectares.
The export of tea in the last fiscal year was worth Rs3.92 billion, up 12.72 percent year-on-year.
The demand for Nepali tea is rising in the Indian market as production has slipped across the border.
According to Indian media reports, tea production in India has declined as a result of climate change, labour problems, low productivity and low profitability. Whenever tea production in India falls, the demand for Nepali tea soars, said domestic tea traders.