Interview with Shri Vazhoor Soman, AITUC, Kerala
Q. What is the status of the fight for fair wages for tea workers? What are the current wages, and what is being demanded?
A. The main goal is to secure a minimum wage for tea plantation workers. The current wages in the tea industry is Rs.348/day. The Kerala government has declared a minimum wage of Rs.600/day, which has been implemented in certain farms, like government farms where workers are getting Rs.630/day, but these are not tea farms. We are insisting that these wages are applied to tea plantations as well.
The state of the plantation industry is not so good. The Labour Minister has requested a meeting to sort out the matter amicably. This meeting will be held mid-December, and will include the government, planters and unions. In the mean time, the government has declared certain benefits for planters. The discussion is looking positive, and it is likely that the management will be forced to increase the wages, but the final decisions will be taken later this month.
The minimum wages is higher in Kerala as compared to other tea producing states. A continuous government, along with strong unions, has led to workers enjoying more benefits.
For many years, the unions have been demanding action against closed tea estates. The government has now requested the owners of closed estates to reopen them. If they do not, the government shall take over the management of the estate. This was a result of a demand by the unions for many years.
Q. What are the biggest problems with the living conditions?
A. Currently, the houses are in poor condition. They are in a better condition than estate housing in other parts of the country, because there are drinking water facilities and electricity, but these are outdated. It is for this reason that the unions have demanded a housing scheme. There are three proposals under this scheme: one, those workers who possess land will receive a subsidy for constructing houses. This will apply to all plantations- tea, coffee, cardamom and rubber. Two, land will be acquired and distributed to workers, along with money for constructing the house. Three, a habitat scheme under which the government will support planters who are willing to demarcate land for housing.
These are the three proposals that are being made. The government of Kerala has earmarked Rs. 21 crore as an initial amount for this purpose. The biggest problem now is finding land for the housing scheme.
Q. What are health conditions like? Is there adequate access to doctors or hospitals?
A. Medical benefits are free for each worker and their family. There used to be estate hospitals, dispensaries, etc. However, after the crisis in the tea industry about 15 years ago, these benefits have been withheld. The hospitals have closed, and workers are sent to government hospitals instead. As a result, the health of the workers is quite bad. They work long hours. Malnutrition is high.
Q. Does child labour exist in this industry?
A. Not in Kerala. The government has abolished child labour.
There is another problem. Most workers are in the age group of 40-65 years. Low wages in combination with poor living conditions have led to new generations not joining the workforce. The education children leave the plantations to find work elsewhere. In order to attract and retain new workforce, it is important that there be a minimum wage of Rs. 600/day.
Q. Are there other labour rights violations in the tea sector?
A. There used to be violations of the Plantation Labour Act (PLA), but now the situation has changed. Earlier, the inspection was poor, but it has now been improving. There are DLO enforcements, and it is the duty of the enforcement officer to see that the PLA is being adhered to.
There are provident fund issues as well, as has been there for 10-15 years now. There is slow progress on this. We propose that like the Modi government is paying the PF contribution for startup businesses, the same needs to be done for traditional industries as well, to uplift them. There is nearly Rs. 65,000 crore in unclaimed amounts with the union government. This should be diverted to PF contributions by amending the PF Act. Traditional industries are employing a lot of workers who need to be protected.
If the government is willing to do this, then minimum wages can also be met, as part of that will be satisfied through PF contributions.
Q. How do Trade Unions see the problems of workers engaged in STGs?
A. There are some agricultural organizations managing the problems of STGs and their workers. There is no strong unionizing here.
Q. What is the relevance of International Tea Day to you, and do you have a message for ITD 2018?
A. There is very low initiative now. Nowadays, the unions are very weak, so it becomes difficult for them to organize an event. There is nothing planned for this year. We need to have gatherings and meetings, but money is needed for that. Support is needed from organizations like ILO, WFTU and ICTU.