Gauhati HC stays wage hike for Assam tea garden workers

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In a new twist in poll-bound Assam, the Gauhati High Court has stayed the state government’s decision to enhance daily wages to over 7.46 lakh tea garden workers in the state.

A court official on Thursday said that the court stayed the Bharatiya Janata Party-led government’s February 20 decision to hike the daily wages to 7,46,667 tea garden workers by Rs 50 — from Rs 167 to Rs 217 — on a petition filed by the Indian Tea Association (ITA).

Hearing the petition of the ITA and 17 tea companies that own over 90 per cent of tea estates in Assam, Justice Michael Zothankhuma upheld the argument that the wage hike was “illegal” as no committee or sub-committee had been formed, as required under relevant sections of the Minimum Wages Act, 1948.

The court asked the government not to take any action against the ITA and the tea companies until a case challenging the state Labour Department’s notification on the wage hike, is disposed of.

As the Assembly poll campaign picked up, the focus of all parties have been more on the tea garden votes. In wake of the court order, the leaders of the Congress-led seven party “Mahajot” (grand alliance) and the front headed by the Assam Jatiya Parishad have immediately begun campaigning against the BJP’s “betrayal of trust” with the tea workers.

The Congress already announced five “guarantees” for the people to be fulfilled if the party comes to power, including raising the tea workers’ daily wages to Rs 365 from the existing Rs 167.

Following the ruling, the opposition party termed the recent hike of the tea garden workers’ wages as a “poll gimmick”.

“The BJP government had not followed proper official procedure to raise the daily wages of tea garden workers as per the Act mentioned in the Labour Department notification. No committees or sub-committees were formed before the wage hike,” Congress spokesperson Bobeeta Sarma said.

The Congress also claimed that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had promised to revise the daily wages of tea workers in Assam to Rs 350 prior to the 2014 Lok Sabha polls.

Increase in daily wages of tea garden workers is an election issue in Assam with opposition parties, including the Congress, criticising the BJP-led government for deliberately delaying wage revision for the last several years.

While the tea garden workers in southern Assam are getting daily wages of Rs 145 per day, the workers in the remaining areas of the state are getting Rs 167 per day.

However, the ruling BJP is confident that the court’s order is not going to affect the party’s poll prospects. “This will not affect our election prospects in any way. If there were technical mistakes, the government would rectify them after retaining power. No party in Assam has done so far as much for the tea community as the BJP has done,” party’s state President Ranjeet Kumar Dass told the media.

Assam has over 10 lakh tea garden workers in the organised sector working in 850 tea estates. The state roughly produces 55 per cent of India’s total tea production of 1,389.70 million kg. Tea tribe communities determine the votes in 30 to 35 of the state’s 126 Assembly seats.

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