The Indian Tea Association on Monday hiked the minimum per day wage of workers by an interim amount of Rs 26. This was after the Gauhati High Court put the onus on raising wages on tea plantation owners. The decision was taken at a meeting of the association's national committee.
"It has been decided that an interim enhancement of Rs 26 per day will be granted to Daily Rated Workers in Brahmaputra Valley and Barak Valley, over the existing level of wages, with effect from February 22 till the issue is finally decided by the Gauhati High Court," a statement signed by the Indian Tea Association (ITA) Secretary General Arijit Raha said.
The ITA and 17 tea plantation owners and companies had filed a petition to withdraw a February 23 notification from the Labour Welfare Department that enhanced the minimum wage of workers from Rs 167 per day to Rs 217 per day, by adding an "interim amount" of Rs 50.
In its initial order the court indicated that the notification was illegal.
"... liberty should be given to the petitioners (tea plantation owners) to pay workmen any interim enhancement of wages they deem proper, till the issue is finally decided..." the court said.
With Assembly elections now just days away, both the ruling BJP and opposition Congress have been attempting to connect with the tea workers, who form aound 18 per cent of the state's population and are spread across 800-odd tea gardens and estates.
This community is widely regarded as a deciding factor in at least 40 of the 126 Assembly seats.
Congess leader Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, who campaigned in Sarupathar in Upper Assam's Golaghat district on Monday, said: "If Congress comes to power, we will increase the daily minimum wage to Rs 365. We will not raise it by putting pressure on tea (plantation) owners, but we will add the balance amount (over and above what they provide) to make it Rs 365 per day," she said.
Ahead of the 2016 election - in which it finally managed to unseat the Congress - the BJP made inroads by announcing schemes dedicated to this community, which had been plagued by economic and social backwardness, poor health conditions and low literacy rates.
Impoverished by the shockingly low wage of Rs 137 per day, tea workers got their first substantial hike in 2017; the state, as an interim measure, raised minimum wages to Rs 167 per day following an advisory committee's recommendation
The committee, however, had suggested a wage of Rs 351 per day.
Congress leaders - both state and national, like Ms Gandhi Vadra and Rahul Gandhi - have pointed out that tea workers in Assam are paid poorly compared to those in Bengal and Kerala, where they get around Rs 300 per day.
Both Bengal and Kerala are also holding Assembly elections in the coming weeks.