History has been made in India after strike action by tea workers forced management on an estate in north western Bengal to abandon their feudal approach and begin discussions with their union.
The signed agreement, the first of its kind in the country, opens the way to real industrial relations whereby management sit across the table with workers and their unions to negotiate.
The move comes after a bitter dispute that started nearly two years ago at the Nowera Nuddy tea garden of Amalgamated Plantations [AP] Limited, which is majority owned by the company behind the Tetley Tea label, the Tata Group. Tata has worldwide assets valued at close to $100 billion with interests in chemicals, energy, steel, services and agriculture.
On August 10th 2009 workers were angered by what they perceived as the denial of maternity leave for Mrs Arti Oraon. She had collapsed in the field and been taken to hospital on the back of a tractor. Under Indian law leave commences six weeks prior to the expected delivery date.
But with AP management alleging Mrs Oraon still had a couple of weeks to work on grounds that the baby wasn’t due to mid-October up to 500 mainly female workers left their work. Previous maternity leave injustices were raised and the dismissal of AP’s medical officer was demanded.
With the company claiming the medical officer had been badly attacked it declared a lock out of two weeks, called in the police and after holding an internal enquiry, that refused to take statements from those locked out, suspended eight workers.
Then when workers refused to return without their suspended colleagues another lock out of almost three months was imposed. All of which took place during a period when no wages were paid and arrest warrants were issued for 12 workers. With charges against them including grievous bodily harm, unlawful assembly, criminal intimidation and unlawful confinement there was a possibility of seven years in jail for some.
The IUF, a worldwide federation of trade unions to which Unite is affiliated, was having none of that. They organised international messages of support and protests were held worldwide. These included one in August last year where leaflets were distributed outside Tata’s London Crown Plaza Hotel, where a night costs £230, equivalent to ten months’ wages for a Nowera Nuddy tea worker.
Earlier this year a contingent of workers, all members of the Progressive Tea Workers Union [PTWU], travelled 400 miles from their plantation to protest outside the headquarters of Tata Global Beverages in Kolkata.
They called on India’s most profitable company to intervene by “instructing AP management to engage in genuine negotiations.” And whilst Tata claimed they were powerless to intervene as “AP is independently owned” it wasn’t longer after that AP did agree to meet with the worker’s union.
Following which a settlement has been agreed in which the criminal cases have been withdrawn. Meantime payments have been given to all workers employed at the time of the second lockout, dismissed workers have been given compensation and family members offered jobs whilst Mrs Oraon’s child has been awarded a cash payment as a goodwill gesture.
In addition management and the PTWU are meeting to establish procedures for resolving grievances as well as raising awareness on maternity benefits and protection.
It’s a great result all round and no wonder then that IUF General Secretary Ron Oswald later paid tribute to the tenacity of the Nowera Nuddy tea workers.