Trade unions are up in arms against the draft Tea (Development and Promotion) Bill, 2022 mooted by the ministry of commerce and industry to replace the 1953 Tea Act. The unions say that this will impact the livelihoods of over a million tea workers and small tea growers.
A government move to replace the Tea Act of 1953 is stirring a hornet’s nest in India’s tea growing regions. Lakhs of tea workers and others associated with the tea business fear that their future is threatened by the new law.
The government is in a hurry to throw open its tea party. The ministry of commerce and industry that handles all matters related to the morning brew came up with a brief 11-day window to record public response to the draft Tea (Development and Promotion) Bill, 2022 that is intended to replace the 1953 Tea Act.
Oddly, the government did not invite representatives of tea workers and the trade unions to give their suggestions in the draft bill. The last date for recording public response to the draft was 21 January.
Ten trade unions – AITUC, INTUC, HMS, CITU, AIUTUC, TUCC, SEWA, AICCTU, LPF and UTUC – managed to rush a missive to the ministry on the last day citing grave concerns on certain provisions of the draft bill that can have huge ramifications on the tea industry, its workers, tea estates and gardens and the tea board that currently controls the industry. The BMS (linked to the ruling BJP government) is not part of the body of trade unions representing to the ministry.
These trade unions have asked the ministry “not to take any unilateral move without appropriately addressing the concerns” of key stakeholders. For this, they have demanded that the government extend the date to record public response and, also to discuss provisions of the bill across the table with stakeholders.
The new law is replete with disturbing elements, much like the farm laws withdrawn by the government recently, a trade union leader told OWSA. The farm laws had provoked a farmers’ agitation.
The trade unions see a red herring in the provision of the draft bill that put an end to the regulatory role of the tea board, ostensibly due to the emergence of competitive and open international market and growth of the small tea grower.
The unions denounce the move as totally unjust and unacceptable. They argue that “India being a major producer of tea in global market, the Tea Board has got a definite and regulatory role to play in national interests and, also in the interests of this highly labour-intensive as well as land-intensive industry, fetching huge foreign exchange earnings for the country.”
Tea workers’ rights
The trade union also point out the exclusion of Chapter 3 (Control over the extension of tea cultivation) and Chapter 4 (Control over the export of tea and tea seed) of the Tea Act, 1953 in the draft Bill. This, the unions say, is a ploy to make over 4.2 lakh hectares of land available for unrestricted commercial use. Such a move will adversely impact the livelihood of 1.2 million tea workers and their families besides damaging the fragile ecology comprising of forest cover and water bodies.
Specifically mentioning the complete exclusion of Chapter 3A, the trade unions point out that this is “tantamount to complete abdication of responsibility by the Government for protecting the interest of the industry, the huge land resources deployed in it and its huge workforce, much to the detriment of national interests.”
In their letter to the ministry, the trade unions have said that “while the exclusion of Chapter 3A opens, potentially, 4.2 lakh hectares of land under tea plantation for competitive commercial avenues, the Tea Bill, 2022 is completely silent on the rights of workers and worker communities dependent exclusively on these plantations. We find this unacceptable and apprehend that it creates a situation for gross labour rights and human rights violations.”