Tea garden owners in Assam will have the "liberty" to decide if they want to follow the state government's order on raising wages for workers, the Gauhati High Court said in an interim order on Tuesday, days after saying no "coercive action" can be taken against them for not following it. The issue has become an important one for both the incumbent BJP and the main opposition Congress ahead of elections that start later this month.
Following the promises made by the BJP-led government, the Labour Welfare department on February 23 had said that the minimum wage for tea workers should be raised from Rs 167 per day to Rs 217 per day by adding an "interim amount" of Rs 50 per day.
High Court Justice Michael Zothankhuma, in his order on Tuesday, said the interim order passed on March 8, "shall continue until further orders".
"Further, after hearing the parties, this Court is of the view that liberty should be given to the petitioners to pay to the workmen any interim enhancement of their wages as they deem proper, till the issue is finally decided by this Court," the order said.
The court had on March 8, acting on a petition filed by the Indian Tea Association along with 17 other tea companies, had stayed the Assam government issued a notification saying, it "illegal in as much as, no Committee/Sub-Committees have been formed as required under Section 5(1/a) and Section 9 of the Minimum Wages Act, 1948."
Both the BJP and the Congress have been trying to win over tea workers who form at least 18 per cent of the state's population spread over at least 800 plantations and are a poll-deciding factor in at least 40 out of the 126 assembly constituencies.
Before the 2016 elections, the BJP had managed to make inroads by announcing various schemes dedicated to the community plagued by economic and social backwardness, poor health conditions and low literacy rates.
Unhappy with their Rs 137 daily wage, the tea workers got their first substantial hike in 2017 when as an interim measure, the state government had raised their minimum wages to Rs 167 per day following the recommendation of an advisory committee. The committee, however, had suggested a wage of Rs 351 per day.