PICS: ROSHAN SAWA
Private tea gardens and processing centres, Ilam's privatised Nepal Tea Development Corporation, and Dhankuta's Guranse, Kuwapani and Jun tea estates have all been closed after workers either locked down or occupied the estates. Annually, Nepal produces over 176,000kg of orthodox tea and over 13 million kg of CTC tea, of which 70 and 30 per cent are exported respectively.
Andrew Gardner, the manager of Guranse, which is owned by the Vaidya group, says exports to Germany, Japan, France and the US have been hit. "It is frustrating because we had just begun to make inroads in to those markets," he told Nepali Times.
The workers stopped work in Ilam and Dhankuta two months ago, with similar demands: a wage increase to Rs95 per day of tea picked, permanent contracts, insurance and other facilities. Protests in both districts are led by the Maoist-affiliated All Nepal Tea Estates Labour Union which wants the implementation of earlier agreements as well as fulfilment of new demands. "If these demands are not met, we will intensify our protests," said the union's Dhankuta coordinator, Narayan Tamang.
The three tea estates in Dhankuta that together employed 700 people have still not been opened, although Guranse has reportedly reached an agreement on increasing the payment for pickers.
The union claims that the Triveni Group, which took over the management of the state-owned Nepal Tea Development Corporation in Ilam in 2000, has not made any moves to meet their demand, which include workers getting permanent contracts. Complicating matters is the fact that there are at least five unions affiliated to the various political parties involved. They had reached a deal with management mediated by the labour ministry last month, but Triveni says the unions have since come up with new demands.
In Dhankuta, tea estate owners say they had reached an agreement with a consortium of unions in 2006 that was supposed to be valid for three years when the new demands were put forward. Union leaders, however, say management of the estates are acting in bad faith and are refusing to listen. "We are not demanding anything new, only wages and facilities that are within the law," says Shanta Kumar Rai, president of Nepal Free Labourers Union, Maoists affiliated union.
As the stalemate continues, thousands of people who depend on the earnings of tea estate workers in eastern Nepal have been affected, government revenue from the trade has taken a direct hit and the market for Nepali tea abroad is being damaged.
In Ilam, some workers are plucking leaves from the 534 hectare Triveni estate and selling it to local businessmen to make a living. FNCCI has criticised this move, saying it is illegal, but no one has been able to stop it?least of all the government which still owns 35 percent of the Triveni estate.
Says Triveni's Subash Shanghai: "We are already running at a loss. We can't raise wages anymore, we must work together to save this company from liquidation, it is our national property." He says the company lost Rs70 million last year, mainly because the government hadn't kept its end of the bargain to help increase production. On paper, the estate, which is where the famous Soktim and Tokla brands are grown, could produce 1.3 million kg of tea a year. But it produces only 500,000kg. In Dhankuta, too, private estate owners say their wages were raised last year, and they are already higher than most other tea gardens in eastern Nepal.
But the issue has now become politicised, with the NC, Maoists and UML supporting the district administration in sending a memo to Kathmandu saying the demands of workers were justified. The only hope, district officials say, is for the political parties to work with their unions to mediate with the management of the tea estates.
"It has been a month that we haven't been paid, we can hardly manage to buy food," says Narmada Niraula, 35, who works on the Kanyam tea estate in Ilam.
She has been working here for 20 years, supporting her husband, two sons and one daughter. The family has been living in a temporary shed on the estate. Like her, about 75 per cent of the estate workers do not have their own land. Despite working here for many years, she has never been able to save any money.
"The price of commodities has already gone through the roof and the Rs 80 per day wage can hardly buy two meals a day, so how can we save?" Narmada asks.
The tea estates have been closed since 28 July. "If this continues, there won't be any Dasain for us," she says. Last year, too, the Dasain spirit was dampened by a strike.
The tea pickers living on the estates have no skills other than plucking tea leaves, nor do they have their own home or land.
She says it is the labourers who suffer most from such frequent strikes and wage disputes. "The management may lose some money, but it is we pickers who suffer the most. The sooner the tea estate opens, the better."
Ilam tea goes green - FROM ISSUE #399 (09 MAY 2008 - 15 MAY 2008)