The Assam Chah Mazdoor Sangha (ACMS), the biggest tea garden workers union of the state has demanded the tea industry to pay a maximum of 20 per cent bonus ahead of Durga Puja festival.
“We have asked the industry to pay 20 per cent puja bonus and three weeks ahead of the festival. The amount has to be paid as onetime payment and that too in cash. We do not want the bonus to be credited in the accounts of the workers as many do not have accounts or the infrastructure to withdraw the money” said Rupesh Gowala, ACMS General Secretary.
ACMS has issued a letter in regard to the Assam Branch Indian Tea Association (ABITA), Assam Tea Planters Association (ATPA), North Eastern Tea Association (NETA), Bharatiya Cha Parishad (BCP) and Tea Association of India (TAI).
Union leaders said that while companies are bound to give bonuses as per law, the incentives come ahead of the Assam assembly polls due next year.
“Bonus is in the statute and the companies are bound to give it. However, the amount that is given varies each year and is dependent upon several factors. Moreover, the bonuses will be handed out ahead of state elections,” said Dipanjal Deka Secretary Tea of Association of India, Assam chapter, adding that the incentives given this year will have political implications.
According to the Payment of Bonus Act, 1965, the industry needs to pay a minimum bonus of 8.33 per cent and a maximum of 20 per cent. All permanent and temporary workers who have worked for at least 30 days are entitled to the bonus.
However, the tea industry, which lost the premium first flush period during the initial days of national lockdown, is experiencing a slump in production by 25-40 per cent. Subsequent pruning of the tea bushes for the second time in the season and relentless rainfall added to the woes of the industry.
“Production in the tea gardens has slumped by 25-30 per cent during the pandemic crisis. The tea gardens are in no position to provide 20 per cent bonus. There has to be a middle way,” said Prabhat Kamal Bezbaruah, Chairman Tea Board of India
In 2019, the state government had to intervene and ask the industry to pay 20 per cent puja bonus when several tea gardens including the Assam Tea Corporation Limited expressed their limitations in paying the maximum rate. In many occasions, demand for bonuses has led to unrest in the tea gardens of Assam.
“Despite low production, Assam tea has earned good prices in auctions. Most of the tea has fetched somewhere around 280 to 300 rupees per kilogram. Green tea leaves too have got a good price for the first time in history. There will be few exceptions, but I'm sure we can come to a common ground ” added Gowala.
Assam accounts for 49 per cent of the country’s total tea production with more than 8.5 lacs workers engaged in its production across 840 registered tea gardens.