Tea garden managements refuse to deposit their share of workers’ PF, deliberately make mistakes in identification records to prevent them from claiming benefits
Alipurduar: Visiting West Bengal’s lush tea gardens for the first time was like a journey through the gates of heaven. Traversing through Alipurduar district of North Bengal, and several villages bordering Bhutan, this correspondent could not help but marvel at the scenic landscape — dozens of women plucking tender tea leaves against the backdrop of green expanse and pristine blue skies interspersed with dense clouds.
Despite being an inseparable part of this panoramic setting, the lives of tea workers are far from ideal. One of the many problems plaguing them is the closure of plantations for long durations.
Dilbahadur Sunwar, a permanent employee at the now-closed Lankapara Tea Garden, receives an unemployment allowance of Rs 1,500 per month from the labour department. He is among the fortunate few as the department is not bound by law to provide allowance to temporary workers, who usually comprise the bulk of the workforce.
According to Paschim Banga Cha Majoor Samity leader Anuradha Talwar, some plantations reopen, but then some more shut down. Some labourers switch to other occupations in the area, while several others migrate.
Unending Cycle Of Poverty
According to a survey conducted by Tea Board of India, 2.39 lakh permanent tea workers and 94,000 temporary workers are present in North Bengal. In all, 449 tea gardens function in the organised sector in the state.
If at least four persons are considered dependent on one tea worker, then 12 lakh people rely on tea gardens for their livelihood and housing. Calling this a conservative estimate, North Bengal Tea Workers’ Association president Christian Kharia said at least 15 lakh people depend on tea gardens.
Tutal Bedia, a worker from Dhekalapara Tea Estate in Alipurduar district, said that the estate reopened five months ago after remaining shut for 22 years. He decided to pick stones from River Dimdima to make a living when the estate closed down a few years after he joined in 1998.
According to a rough estimate, 80% of the workers employed in tea gardens are women. It is their job to pluck leaves, while men are employed in tea factories. At present, tea workers get only Rs 232 per day as wages. The April 27 announcement to raise it to Rs 250 per day is yet to be implemented.
Opposing a wage hike, some tea companies have filed a petition in Calcutta High Court.
Workers informed plantation owners have reiterated that no decision to increase the wages was taken during the tripartite meeting attended by the management, the labour union and those representing the government.
In a written reply to 101Reporters, Tea Board of India said the Plantations Labour Act, 1951, provides for regulation of working conditions in tea gardens and welfare measures for workers. There are provisions to ensure that employers provide accommodation and medical facilities to workers, apart from allowing maternity benefits, educational facilities for children, drinking water, sanitation, and canteens and creches near tea gardens.
The workers stay in the residential quarters provided by the tea estate, but have no land rights despite living there for generations. These houses were built on lands provided by the government, and not tea gardens.
“In the early 19th century, the British transported 1,836 Adivasis, including our ancestors, from Chotanagpur area in present-day Jharkhand for building tea plantations here. These workers cut forests and made the area suitable for tea plantations, but they did not own a piece of land. Our kids who even manage to do BA or MA have to work in the tea garden because they will lose the house otherwise,” said Kharia.
He added there are two types of land in the garden area — plantation and non-plantation. The tea plantation management should have rights over the plantation land only. To make this effective, the 1951 Act should be amended, he demanded.
Sunwar narrated his ordeal in obtaining his rightful dues, including provident fund (PF) and gratuity. He received it in 2019, whereas the plant stopped operations in the first quarter of 2015. He got the amount after 29 organisations filed a case for clearance of dues. Many are still awaiting their dues.
“Before the Lankapara plantation stopped operations, at least 3,000 labourers worked there. I also was part of the workforce for 23 years. The management stopped making deposits in my PF accounts in 2010. What can I do with this unemployment benefit of Rs 1,500? People are migrating to Chennai, Delhi, Kerala and Bengaluru to work as domestic help or for other menial jobs,” he lamented.
“Former workers in Lankapara say there is a PF scam in the tea garden, and it is done by middlemen and management together. The labour commissioner is also roped in by political parties in favour of tea estate owners,” he alleged.
Ashok Pradhan, a senior staff member of Lankapara garden, now cultivates green tea in the estate by forming around 14 committees with 100 to 150 workers each.
“Different names are entered in different records. If my name is Ashok Pradhan, it is entered into the employment records as A Pradhan. Due to such issues, one-third of the workers here do not even get unemployment allowance,” he explained.
The number of tea workers is very large and they are less educated. Mismatch in dates of birth/death also leads to ‘technical issues’, which prevent people from withdrawing PF and gratuity.
“In our estate, at least 1,200 retired workers are yet to get their gratuities since 1998. Some of them have passed away,” said 59-year-old Bhunu Gwala, who has been fighting for workers as the Kalchini plantation president of Paschim Banga Cha Majoor Samity.
Legally, companies are required to settle gratuity payouts within three months of a worker being out of job.
Following the Supreme Court (SC) intervention — a complaint on PF irregularities reached the country’s top court in 2006 — the PF department has handed over a document with details up to November 18 last year of the workers of Alipurduar and Jalpaiguri districts to the workers or their representative organisations and the plantation managements.
101Reporters managed to access this document with details of PF of 64,096 tea workers in 30 gardens. The document mentioned the month and year in which the PF contribution of a particular worker was not deposited with the department and for that, how much penalty was imposed on the plantation. Until November 18 last year, fines to be deducted from tea plantation managements came to Rs 12.71 crore.
Gwala alleged that the company management walks back on the promises made within courtrooms. “They also violated the orders of the Lok Adalat, which on December 10 last year ordered the management to pay up to Rs 35,000 by this April to the labourers with outstanding gratuity.”
Repeated attempts to get contact details of Lankapara and Kalchini estate managements on the closure of plants, and the PF and gratuity issues proved futile.
Fight For Rights
Trade unions are the mainstay of tea garden workers in their fight for rights. Political parties also try to capitalise on the issue of PF scam.
Sk Naushad Ali, Assistant Labour Commissioner of Alipurduar district, accepted that tea plantation managements don’t give gratuity. He also admitted that the plantations are not depositing their PF share.
“When complaints come from a trade union, we hold tripartite talks, in which the plantation management, trade union and we, the public servants, are involved and the matter is heard… The complaints related to PF are relayed to the PF department,” he said.
A former deputy labour commissioner of Alipurduar district also acknowledged that plantation managements scam the PF and do not deposit their share of the fund.
On the other hand, Anuradha Talwar alleged that both the labour and PF departments look after the interests of the plantation managements and don’t act against them as strongly as they should. “In case of irregularities, if the plantation owner is arrested, he/she is released due to lack of a strong provision,” she said.
“Tea workers cannot withdraw money directly from PF. When they go to the PF clerk, the brokers corner them and the bargaining begins. These middlemen can charge anywhere from 10 to 50% of the amount rightfully owed to the worker. If workers try to withdraw PF directly, they are harassed and shooed away on pretext of a mismatch with Aadhaar data or a mistake in the Universal Account Number,” Anuradha elaborated.
The labour department works under the state government and the PF department comes under the Central government. This also causes problems in coordination. According to Talwar, 29 organisations had filed a court case on behalf of around 26,000 labourers in Alipurduar and Jalpaiguri districts, and according to a rough estimate, PF money of Rs 350 to 400 crore are still pending.
(Rahul Singh is a West Bengal-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters)