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Fed up with low wages and ill-treatment, Nepali tea plantation workers say enough is enough

  • Thousands of tea plantation workers have gone on an indefinite strike in eastern Nepal, casting shadows on the future of a once lucrative business.
- Tsering D Gurung, Kathmandu

May 12, 2019-

The Budhakaran Tea Estate, a sprawling property located in the town of Bhadrapur in Jhapa, would usually be teeming with activity this time of the year. Today, it is eerily quiet.

Tea leaves meant to have been plucked with the onset of spring have turned yellow. The gate to the processing factory has been locked for over a month. The only individuals working on the estate, which employs nearly 150 people, are two men guarding the owner’s home.

Since April 1, tea plantation workers across eastern Nepal have gone on strike, shutting down estates to demand their employers implement the minimum daily wage and provide other benefits including social security and medical insurance guaranteed under the 2017 Labour Act. Although the law came into effect last July, almost all the workers say they have not seen an increase in their pay.  

“How can we survive on such a low wage? We have to feed our family, send our children to school,” said Jasinta Khadiya, 46, a plantation worker at Budhakaran, during a gathering of tea workers last week to discuss plans for a mass demonstration. “Prices for everything have gone up, but our wages remain the same.”      

Like many others here, Khadiya grew up on the plantation, learnt the tricks of the tea garden, watching her parents pluck and prune. And when she was 16, she joined the workforce, doing the same thing her parents had done all their lives.  The plantation is also where she met her husband, and together they now have four children.

“This place is our everything, it’s our home, it’s where our friends and family live and work,” said Khadiya. “But it hasn’t always treated us well.”

Under new laws, the daily minimum wage for industrial workers like Khadiya has been set at Rs385. But owners have refused to increase their daily wage, currently Rs278. Besides the increase in the daily minimum wage, the new law requires employers to contribute to a social security fund for its workers and also set up medical and accidental insurance.

“Our demands aren’t outrageous,” said Rajkumar Tamang, representative of All Nepal Tea Plantation Workers’ Union. “All we are asking is that the employers pay its workers in accordance with the law.”

***

On a hot and humid afternoon last week, hundreds of tea plantation workers descended upon the eastern city of Birtamode, laid down on the scorching asphalt roads and blocked traffic on the East-West Highway for a few hours.

It was a desperate call for attention.

With the strike now entering its seventh week and with no signs of a possible resolution between parties, workers are beginning to get anxious. Many have run out of the little savings they had. Some of them have taken out loans to feed themselves, others are foraging for food in the forests.

“We didn’t think this would go on for so long,” said Kelena Hembram, 45, a worker from Budhakaran Tea Estate. “Many of us thought it would be resolved within 15 to 20 days as it has had in the past.”

Hembram said she has been unable to find temporary jobs because people think she will go back to her old job once the strike is over.  

Despite their sufferings, workers are determined to continue their fight for a fair wage.

Rabi Lal Murmu, a worker at Gupta Tea Eastate in Bharatpur, says tea workers like him are surviving on one meal a day due to the ongoing strike.

“Instead of two meals a day, we are now surviving on one,” said Rabi Lal Murmu, 53, a worker from Gupta Tea Estate in Bhadrapur. “But we won’t back down. The management has always tried to derive us of our benefits and we want to stand up to them.”

***

This is not the first time tea workers have gone an indefinite strike. During the 2006 People’s Movement, workers shut down tea estates across the country for 19 days. At the time one of their main demands was for temporary employees to be made permanent. Since then, several small-scale agitations have been staged, mostly concerning demand for an increase in wages.

Following the 2006 demonstration, thousands of workers were granted permanent status and handed appointment letters. But the benefits stated in those letters haven’t been realised by the workers, said Congress Baniya, a tea worker at Budhakaran.

“We were promised a lot of things,” said Baniya, who lives on the estate with his family of six. “But we have been given nothing.”

Baniya and his family have been living in the same one-room mud shack since he first began working on the plantation nearly forty years ago. The roofing, made of corrugated tin sheet, is filled with holes and leaks when it rains. Their home is representative of the living condition of workers across the estate who are left to fend for themselves.

While these workers are offered minimal benefits and provided no proper work gear, they are expected to be extremely productive. According to workers, their supervisors cut their pay for a plethora of reasons, including for not meeting a daily quota of leaves and for showing up late to work.

“We have to pluck 30kg worth of tea leaves in a single shift,” said Hembram. “If we fall short of the weight, then the supervisor deducts our pay accordingly.” Although some workers who are quick to finish picking up leaves to meet their quota by noon, many others are forced to work the entire day—or face a pay cut.

For many agitating workers, the strike is more than just about demanding their welfare. It’s about ensuring that the next generation of workers will not be bereft of their rights the way they had been for decades.

“We are doing this for our sons and daughters who will eventually go on to replace us,” said Baniya.

***

The agitation began around the same time as the start of the Spring harvest season known as the ‘first flush,’ which marks the first plucking period of the year. Leaves plucked during the season are said to be of prime quality and are prized for their aroma and lightness.

Since the strike began, production has dropped by 20 percent this year, according to industry insiders and resulted in a loss of an estimated one billion rupees.  

Across eastern Nepal, plantation owners speak of their own woes. A few of them who spoke to the Post said they will run out of business if they are to enforce the monthly minimum wage and social security scheme set by the government.

“We will not be able to run the factory if the workers’ demands are addressed,” Suresh Mittal, president of the Tea Producers Association in Jhapa told the Post last month.

In a recent interview with the Post, Rajan Singh, managing director of Budhakaran Tea Estate, said he is not against fulfilling the demands of his workers, but without any government assistance, the cost of production will be too high to keep the business afloat.

“The government brought these laws without any consultation with stakeholders,” said Singh. “We are not saying we don’t want to comply with the new laws, we are just not in the position to do so without any help from the government.”

On the other side, union leaders feel the government has not done much to ensure owners are enforcing the new regulations.

“The state hasn’t really shown any concern for the workers who have been on strike for nearly two months now,” said Tamang, the union representative in Budhakaran. “By not taking charge of the situation, it’s basically telling workers you are on your own.”

A group of women agitating tea workers in Jhapa.

The Ministry of Labour and Employment has hosted several rounds of talks between representatives of the Tea Producers Association, trade unions and government officials. During the meetings, tea producers put forth their own list of demands; asking the government among other things: concession on VAT; permission to allow operation of hotels and resorts on the estates and permission to diversify their crops.

“If the state doesn’t provide any relief to us, then we can’t sustain our business, we will have to commit suicide,” Subhash Sangai, the director of Nepal Tea Corporation told Kantipur on Saturday.  

But many workers believe tea estate owners are simply trying to milk the situation in their favour, and their narrative that they will run out of business if they were to comply with the government’s rules on labour wages and benefits is completely baseless.

“If they are not making any money out of tea business, how come they keep expanding the estate?” said Baniya, referring to his own plantation.

Last week, Minister of Labour Gokarna Bista reportedly issued a stern warning to tea estate owners: start opening the plantation in the next few days or else, hand in your names if you can’t run your business.

Following Bista’s orders, several tea gardens, including four operated by Triveni Group, one of the biggest players and the producer of the popular Tokla Tea, has agreed to start paying new wages and opened for business on Sunday. Others will soon follow, officials at the ministry said.

“The talks have been successful. Several owners have agreed to comply with the new labour laws and have already opened their plantations,” said Mahesh Prasad Dahal, secretary at the ministry.

But the mood is still wary back in Budhikaran. The owner, Rajan Singh, has not met with workers and there is no word on whether he will agree to implement the new guidelines under the labour act.

“If this can’t be resolved peacefully and through dialogue, then we will have to seek an alternative course,” said Tamang, the union representative. “We are dying, so we won’t refrain from killing.”

Published: 13-05-2019 06:30

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