At a time when the Assam government wants tea workers to go cashless and operate bank accounts, it should also be taking tough action against tea estate magements that do not deposit provident fund contributions. Under the Provident Fund Act, this is a crimil offence, but vel magements have been getting away with such malpractices while the government and Tea Board conveniently look the other way. So the move to attach two errant tea estates, Sekoni Tea Estate in gaon district and Rajabari Tea Estate in Jorhat district, by Assam Tea Employees’ Provident Fund Organisation (ATEPFO)— needs to be welcomed. In fact, such tough action has been long overdue. Not only do some tea estate magements fail to deposit their 12 percent PF contribution, they also do not deposit the 12 percent PF share of workers despite deducting it from their salaries. And carry on with this robbery for years on end, but are never punished because they know which strings to pull at the highest levels and whose palms to grease. Of the nearly 800 tea estates in Assam, around 100 estates are defaulting on PF deposits, Minister of State for Labour and Tea Tribes Welfare Pallab Lochan Das has pointed out. He has spoken about how the Sekoni and Rajabari TE magements were given several chances to make PF payments, ‘even in installments’, but they paid no heed. These two estates will now be handed over to interested parties for running them for six months, and later sold off to the highest bidder. The minister has also warned of phased action against other defaulting tea estates. Well, the sooner the whip is cracked, the better. Over two years back in August 2014, the then Revenue, Labour and Employment Minister Prithibi Majhi had informed the Assembly that 228 tea estates had defaulted on depositing PF contribution for their workers, and the total amount of default stood at Rs 91.63 crore. Moreover, 19 tea estates had arrear PF dues of Rs 59.2 crore. The government had then promised registering crimil and bakijai cases against defaulting estates, but obviously did not follow through.
So tea workers at the end of service at age 60 are left high and dry with no hopes whatsoever of ever getting hands on PF money they had contributed, let alone the matching share the magement should have put in. There has been a lot of lip sympathy for tea workers and promises galore to end their exploitation in previous three terms of Congress rule, but hardly any action on ground. Is it any wonder that voting patterns of this supposed ‘vote-bank’ has been changing drastically in the last couple of years? Tea estate magements habitually playing truant in paying PF money along with land revenue dues to the government, cite commercial losses in a sector facing huge challenges. But the State government should get to the bottom of many malpractices they indulge in, cheating their workers and making their estates fall sick. Apart from the usual fund diversions and suspect investments, some magements have been known to indulge in ‘asset stripping’ — sending inferior quality tea samples to licensed brokers so that low prices are fixed at auctions and then shown in the accounts, while selling the tea clandestinely at higher prices in the market. Interestingly, the State government’s drive to get bank accounts opened for tea workers is expected to elimite another malpractice by magements — inflating wage bills with non-existent workers (ghost hazira). If the government pushes to the hilt the fincial inclusion of tea workers, it can better monitor whether they are being paid proper dues. This should also help follow where their PF contributions, shown to be deducted from their wages, are really going. Tea workers unions — instead of toeing the dictates of political parties they are aligned with — should grab the digital opportunity to ensure total transparency in payments and benefit transfers to hitherto exploited workers. They ought not forget that a corrupt magement can leave the tea estate overnight with their loot, but the workers have little margin to keep their home fires burning.