Starvation Wage vs Living Wage in the Tea Gardens of Assam

The centrality of tea garden workers of Assam in writing its history, finds its corollary in their total absence in the current discourse in political activism or the academia. Labour invisiblized is not mere metaphor. Over 8 lakh current and around 40 lakh ex-tea garden workers in the over 875 big plantations, and many more in the over 2,73,000 small tea gardens, work a daily grind in ever worsening conditions away from the spotlights animating social discourse in the region. Only when a Laxmi Orang is stripped and thrashed in the heart of Dispur, or a Bogidhola erupts in anger or 21 die in a month in a Doyang tea estate, does the question of the situation and lives of this most exploited sector of tea workers even come up as a social question (and even then it remains in the sidelines).

Recently the tea workers in Assam, as well as their nearby counterparts in Darjeeling Hills-Terai-Dooars, are engaged in a struggle for implementation of minimum wages. Along with it are demands for land rights, for SC status for the communities, and so on. The Minimum Wages Act 1948 has not been applied in the sector, and so every time a haggling through an undemocratic system of ‘collective bargaining’ between the owners and only one Trade Union as favoured by the owners settles matters, with government presence being a passive observer or intervening on behalf of the managements. This is a sector making super-profits as consecutive Annual Statistics from the Tea Board shows a steady and steep rise in production and demand. But the current daily wage rate of Rs.137 in the Brahmaputra valley, Rs.117 for Barak valley and Rs.126 for ATC gardens with some variations, almost reduces these working class communities to bare life. Many Trade Unions as part of a Joint Forum currently demand a daily wage rate of Rs.351 plus fringe benefits. In this situation, a government committee recommending a revised rate of Rs.351.33 has come which shockingly excludes the fringe benefits, setting the rate really low, even to which the Owners as expected, have raised objections. The following is the Govt’s methodology for calculating minimum wages.

What follows is a ‘Response to the government notification’ from some citizens involved and concerned with the situation of tea workers. Also, note that this is a calculation based on bare minimum for the sector, while the general demand of Trade Unions across the board currently is of an all-India minimum wage of Rs.22,000 per month with some calculating it as Rs26,000/month.

 

To,

Tapan Chandra Sharma,

IAS, Secretary to the Government of Assam,

Labour Welfare Department,

Assam Secretariat, Block-A, 3rd Floor,

Dispur, Guwahati-6

Date: 15th September 2018

SUBJECT: Response onFixation of Minimum Wages for the Plantation Workers of Assam”

Respected Sir,

We, the undersigned, are citizens involved and concerned with the situation and interests of the plantation workers of Assam, in varying capacities. We are sending our response to the Government of Assam Notice no. GLR (RC) 178/2014/Pt-I/4 on “Fixation of Minimum Wages of Plantation Workers of Assam”.

The tea plantation workers of Assam have historically, and continue to, contribute to the making of Assam, and yet continue to remain one the most super-exploited working class communities in the State. The current daily wage rate of tea workers in Assam is Rs.137, which is much lower than the min wage of other industrial workers in the State itself. Also, as the government calculation note itself notes, the wages of Tea workers of Kerala (290, in fact the revised wages in the Munnar plantations since 2016 is above Rs.300), Tamil Nadu (Rs.289.41), etc. are about 111% more than that of Assam. This needs to be seriously addressed by the government and people of Assam, as has been time and again demanded by the workers. The fixation of minimum wages and its timely revision is an ‘inalienable right’ of plantation workers, and we are happy that the Labour Welfare Dept. has worked out a ‘draft composite Minimum wages’ proposal, and hereby submit our response pointing to the anomalies that we noticed.

Our first submission is that the Minimum Wages Act 1948 be applied to the sector, and benefits under the Plantation Labour Act 1951 also continue as per its provisions. The fringe benefits component of wages should continue along with a revision in the cash component of wages. The system of adding Variable Dearness Allowance (VDA) with varying Consumer Price Index should be accepted along with Minimum Wage.

Second, we jot down our comments corresponding to the points in the given Notification, and also state our calculations, which is a legitimate demand of the workers.

Minimum wages or what is ‘the minimum necessity’ for a worker to daily regenerate her/his labour power, is not a static concept, and requires continual revision in a given context. Minimum Wages, as the International Labour Conference 1957 noted, was arrived at, in a horizon of it being applicable to the unorganized sector, with Fair Wage for the Organized Sector, and Living Wages as the goal towards which we have to move. The 15th ILC or Indian Labour Conference 1957 laid down the criteria for calculation of Min Wages, with the Minimum Wages Act 1948, laying out its specifics of calculating it, as you have noted. 

The Hon’ble Supreme Court in the year 1991, in its judgment (Mgt. of Reptakos Brett vs Workmen) expressed that, minimum wages should be determined as per recommendation of 15th Indian Labour Conference held at 1957 at New Delhi. It also decreed that a further point needs to be added, namely:

“(vi) children’s education, medical requirement, minimum recreation including festivals/ ceremonies and provision for old age marriages etc. should further constitute 25% of the total minimum wage.”

The minimum wage formula as was last adjusted in 1991 by the Supreme Court (as above) after 34 years (1957-1991). A further 27 years have now passed. Necessities have grown manifold. The 7th Pay Commission has also started off by accepting these norms more or less. Based on these, the general demand of Trade Unions across the board of an all-India Minimum Wage is currently Rs.22,000 per month with some calculating it as Rs26,000/month, with variation on sectors and areas. For the tea sector this amount, even if revised, is relatively already much low.

From the notification, we get the calculation of the wages proposed, We jot down our comments here in a column, correspondingly with the points of the given notification, and then our calculation too.

This is just the calculation of minimum wages based on Government approved formula for calculating minimum wages. The component of kind or ‘fringe benefits’ is separate, and not included here in our calculations. As per provisions under the Plantation Labour Act 1951, this should be separately given under the heads of Medical, Housing, Education, Welfare and Leave with wages and festival holidays. Statutory benefits like Bonus and DA, P.F. and Gratuity are also distinct from this, which should be separately calculated and given.

 

The recommendations are: Our Comments:
1.    In calculating the minimum wage, the standard working class family should be taken to consist of 3 consumption units for one earner; the earnings of women, children and adolescents should be disregarded.
2.    The minimum food requirement should be calculated on the basis of net intake of 2700 calories for an average Indian adult of moderated activity, as recommended by Dr. Wallace Akroyd, 1st Director of Deptt. Nutrition at Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).
3.    Clothing requirements should be estimated at per capita consumption of 18 yards (16.5 mtr.) per annum which would give for the average workers’ family of four, a total of 72 yards (65.8 mtr.).
4.    In respect of housing, the rent corresponding to the minimum area provided for under Government’s Industrial Housing Scheme should be taken into consideration in fixing the minimum wage.

 

The amount for this has been suggested as Rs. 300. This is too less, and also not clear from the notification on what basis it has been done.

As there is no housing scheme in the tea garden areas, we can take as parameter that housing should be general rate of house rent stipulated for all other industrial workers, viz at least 5% of the total wage. 

5.    Fuel, lighting and other miscellaneous items of expenditure should constitute 20% of the total minimum wage. In the proposal, Expenditure on fuel, lightening and misc. has been taken to be 20% of expenditure of food.

While the 15th ILC resolved, “Expenditure on fuel…. should constitute 20% of the total minimum wage.”

Hon’ble Supreme Court also expressed that, in view of socio-economic aspect of the wages structure the following additional component has also to be taken in account.

6.    Childrens’ education, medical requirement, minimum recreation including festivals/ceremonies and provision of old age, marriage etc should further constitute 25% of the total minimum wages.

The same mistake as above is done in calculating this factor too.

In the proposal, Childrens’ education, …. marriage etc has been taken to be 25% of expenditure of food.

While the 15th ILC resolved, “Childrens’ education, …. marriage etc.   should further constitute 25% of the total minimum wages. And all these factors were stated as ‘irreducible minimum’ by the Supreme Court.

 

So,

Fuel, lighting and others should constitute 20% of the total minimum wage.

Children’s education,… marriage, etc. should constitute 25% of the total minimum wage.

the Housing Factor factored should constitute(at least) 5% of the total minimum wage.

Which means, these 3 factors, in sum total, should be 50% of the total min wage

And consequently, it follows that, the first two i.e. the Food and Clothing component should be the rest 50% of the total min wage

Now, in the draft, total expenditure on food + cloth has been proposed to be = Rs. 6648.30+600 = Rs. 7248.30

Therefore, the Minimum Wage should be at least = Rs. 7248.30 X= Rs. 14496.60 per month

This should be divided by 26 days

and not by 30 (as done in your calculation),

as the tea workers are daily rated workers. So, it should be= Rs. 14496.60 / 26 = Rs. 557.56 per day

So, we are calculating the reasonable figure of Rs.557.56 per day

Along with this, we state again that:

  1. Reducing the cash and kind components to a single minimum wages cannot be done in the case of plantation workers. The government proposal includes the fringe benefits within the revised rate in actuality makes it a really low rate. Our above calculation, of Rs.557.56 per day is only the cash component to be adjusted along with some overlaps with the kind component, as per the “irreducible minimum” stated by the Supreme Court. Benefits under the PLA 1951 should continue.
  2. The Minimum Wages Act 1948 should be applied along with PLA 1951, and the system of adding Variable Dearness Allowance (VDA) with varying Consumer Price Index should be accepted along with Minimum Wage.
  3. This is a sector making super-profits as consecutive Annual Statistics from the Tea Board shows a steady and steep rise in production and demand. So arguments of ‘crisis in the industry’ are patently wrong. The revision should happen with evolving a democratic system of ‘collective bargaining’ between the owners, the government and all Trade Unions and stakeholders from among the workers.

Sincere Regards,

  1. Sanjay Barbora, Associate Professor and Dean, School of Social Sciences and Humanities, TISS, Guwahati
  2. Debarshi Das, Associate Professor of Economics, Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, IIT Guwahati
  3. Kangkan Deka, Professor, Department of History, Darrang College, Tezpur
  4. Ankur Tamuli Phukan, Convenor, Uki Research Collective, Guwahati
  5. Bonojit Hussain, activist and researcher, Guwahati
  6. Bedabrata Gogoi, researcher and activist, Satra Mukti Sangram Samiti Assam
  7. Pranab Doley, Advisor, Jeepal Krishak Sramik Sangha
  8. Angshuman Sharma, activist SFI and PhD research scholar, JNU Delhi
  9. Devangana Kalita, activist and researcher JNU, New Delhi
  10. Gaurav Rajkhowa, Convenor, Uki Research Collective, Guwahati
  11. Mayur Chetia, activist and researcher, Delhi
  12. Nayanjyoti, Trade Unionist and PhD research scholar, Delhi University

 

 

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