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Kerala plantations chafe at wage deal

George Joseph  |  Mumbai 

Kerala plantations chafe at wage deal

Several reservations from Kerala's planter community emerged at last Wednesday's government-brokered agreement to raise wages of workers.

Although that meeting of the Plantation Labour Committee (PLC), at which all sides were represented, had agreed the compromise settlement, the document in this regard has yet to be signed. Planter representatives say they will do so in due course, as they have little other choice with the immense government pressure. "We were forced to agree to the proposals by the ministers. We strongly opposed and expressed our concerns but the government was in a hurry to increase the (daily) wage above Rs 300 at any cost, Finally, we agreed to it. After all, government is powerful," said a planter representative at the talks.

Kerala plantations chafe at wage deal
It was a political decision rather than an economic one, he went on. Political leaders, especially the chief minister, wanted to settle the issue at any cost as local body elections are on the anvil. They wanted to highlight the wage increase for political mileage and pressurised the management to increase the minimum wage to Rs 301, eventually agreed to, in principle. Chief Minister Oommen Chandy wanted to avoid a law and order issue at Munnar, as the striking workers had blocked all the roads to the place, a also a prime tourist destination.

The formal agreement will be signed in the next meetings, scheduled after the elections. Other than wages, there are issues to be discussed such as productivity of labour. "We will sign the agreement once all the issues are resolved," added the source. So, instead of an amicable solution, the issue is likely to again flare after the local body elections are over.

The Association of Plantations of Kerala (APK) has demanded the tenure of the agreement should be increased to four years instead of the earlier pratice of three years. There should also be a consensus to enhance productivity of labour in line with the pay rise.

The standard output per worker in tea plantations should be increased from the present 21 kg to 31 kg, and in coffee plantations from 50 kg to 80 kg, said a planter representative. However, an APK spokesperson declined formal comment on the decisions at the PLC meeting.

Plantations in Kerala, spread over 763,000 hectares, providedirect employment to 361,000 workers. They are, say management heads, facing slow death for a number of reasons, including high wages and low prices. The average daily wage in tea plantations of Assam is Rs 170 but is Rs 436 in Kerala, was one complaint.

The allegation is that 90 per cent of plantations are on the verge of closure. Planters say their cash flow would be affected substantially during the next six months, as production will drop during winter. "Small and medium plantations are likely to have a slow death within the next two to three years," alleged a large-size plantation owner.

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First Published: Mon, October 19 2015. 22:34 IST