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Workers' collective successfully ran tea garden, why 'illegal' takeover?: Labour rights group

Counterview Desk 

A West Bengal tea workers’ organisation, Paschim Banga Khet Majoor Samity (PBKMS), has opposed an agreement recently signed between trade unions and the Merico Agro Industries Limited to “re-open” the Birpara Tea Garden in the Jateswar Division of West Bengal allegedly against the will of the tea leave pluckers, who had formed a collective to run the closed tea garden since September 2019.
Calling it “illegal takeover” of the tea garden “abandoned” by Duncans Industries, and stating that it is “nothing but theft”, PBKMS said in a statement to mark the May Day, the takeover took over despite the fact that the workers’ collective having 1,300 tea pluckers had begun receiving Rs 10 per kg for plucking leaves, earning Rs 250-300 per day during the season.
The collective started saving successfully right from September 2019. Each received an average of Rs. 11,280 as bonus from the surplus savings on October 7, 2020. They also received money for their paid leave (“saal chutti”) during the off season”, the statement said.

Text:

Gardens in the Doars have been ruined since the crisis in 2003-04 by theft. The sufferers have been ordinary workers – the women pluckers and their children who survive on the green leaves alone. The latest accusation of theft has been made against the 1,300 workers of Jateswar Division of Birpara Tea Garden. But we would like to raise the question -- who is the thief in this case?
Birpara tea garden was abandoned in 2015, to be re-opened in 2017 and then again abandoned by the Duncans Industries Ltd. In September 2019, 1,300 workers of Jateshwar Division of Birpara garden made a collective of their own to run 405 acres of the garden. 
 Since then, the workers have received Rs. 10 per kg for plucking leaves, earning Rs 250-300 per day during the season. The collective started saving successfully right from September 2019. Each received an average of Rs. 11,280 as bonus from the surplus savings on October 7, 2020. They have also received money for their paid leave (“saal chutti”) during the off season.
Workers feel the past year has been better for them than even when Duncans was managing the garden. The workers are also convinced that while employers may come and go, workers would be dependent on the tea bushes for generations to come . Hence it was their responsibility to maintain and safeguard these bushes, shade trees and other garden properties. It is these responsible workers who have been called thieves.
The accusation of theft has its origins in an illegal opening agreement. On February 12 trade union leaders of 4-5 major trade unions signed an agreement with Merico Agro Industries Limited to re-open the garden on February 16, 2021. No Government official or Duncans representative has signed this agreement.
The Jateswar workers claim this reopening is illegal and they will be cheated by this so-called management. This contention is based on the following:
  • According to the High Court Order (MAT 562 of 2016) dated September 29, 2016, the Duncans Industries Limited are not allowed to sell the garden to any other owner. They are to run the garden themselves and return dues to workers.
  • Since March 5, 2021, Duncans Industries Limited has been declared bankrupt. All Duncans properties are now under a Resolution Professional and a Committee of Creditors are now considering a plan to sell Duncans properties and re-pay their creditors. Hence the garden cannot be handed over by any person to Merico Agro Industries.
  • Due to the illegality of Merico’s ownership, even a case of theft of green leaves filed by the Merico senior manager against 14 Jateswar workers was not considered valid. The ACJM (2nd Court ) Alipur Duar while giving unconditional bail to the workers arrested in this case on 26th March 2021 has questioned the locus standi of the senior manager of Merico in filing this theft case and has expressed doubts about the “authorities” who have signed the agreement handing Birpara over to Mericos. She has sternly warned the Birpara Police from filing any such illegal theft cases against Jateswar workers.
  • Workers of Jateswar and our union have been asking the management and the administration to provide us with legally valid documents of Merico’s ownership of Birpara. So far, we have not been shown even one document. No such document has been filed even in a case filed in the Circuit Bench at Jalpaiguri.
The workers therefore continue to pluck leaves and maintain the bushes, providing irrigation, fertiliser , pesticides etc. and would like to raise the question – who are the actual thieves?
Tea garden workers protest "illegal" takeover
We have seen the theft in gardens where whole buildings have been reduced to the ground, with every brick, rod and stone being stolen. We have seen a timber mafia that flourishes with the illegal cutting of shade trees in closed and open gardens, where management colluded with the mafia to make a quick buck at the cost of the employer who is in faraway Kolkata or Siliguri.
The largest theft has been by employers who have abandoned gardens without paying workers’ dues. Paschim Banga Khet Majoor is at present fighting a case in the Supreme Court for 29 such gardens where the total dues that employers have not paid amount to over Rs 350 crores. There has been theft in gratuity, where under the Labour office in Birpara alone at least 8-10,000 workers have not been paid gratuity even though they have retired 10 to 15 years ago.
Even after the direction and order of the Assistant Labour Commissioner, the management has denied to pay the gratuity money to the workers. Garden management also steals, deducting provident funds from workers but not depositing their share or the employees' share. Desperate workers agree to illegal and invalid opening agreements, where their leaders sign away all their dues and agree to payment of only daily wages for the reopening of a garden.
We are surprised by the silence of some trade unions about these huge thefts. We suspect collusion between some trade union leaders, administration and rogue employers in these thefts. Instead of accusing works who are trying to prevent the loot of their garden by an illegal owner, let us all work together to rid the gardens of the thieves who steal our gratuity and provident fund, who open gardens without legal documents and who run away with our dues and our assets without caring about our children and our survival.
Identify the real thieves. Stop the real theft!

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