TINSUKIA: The Apeejay Tea’s refusal to pay full salary and wages to its employees for the period under closure due to COVID-19 pandemic lockdown despite clear directives to all tea estate management by the government, evoked strong protest from the Assam Chah Karmachari Sangha (ACKS).
While the government is viewing the defiance and non-compliance as gross violation of the Disaster Management Act, 2005 and contemplating legal action against the tea giant, the ACKS will fight tooth and nail to get justice even as other key players in the tea industry like Amalgamated Plantation Pvt Ltd (APPL), MK Jokai, Gillanders and Jorehaut Group have paid wages without any deduction
The management of Apeejay Tea, a unit of Apeejay Surrendra Paul Group, India’s oldest and third largest tea producer company in the world spreading over 17 tea estates in the prime tea growing areas of Tinsukia, Dibrugarh, Charaideo, Udalguri and Sonitpur districts of Assam, in a letter to ACKS on 3.4.2020, while referring to the Government of India and Government of Assam’s letters following outbreak of COVID-19 and subsequent lockdown, stated that ‘inter alia in absence of operation and zero sale proceeds and company being in financial stress, the management has decided to pay an ad-hoc advance equivalent to 70 per cent of the monthly salary to staff and payment of dues will be reviewed after reopening of the estates’, which ACKS vehemently disagreed.
A senior functionary of ACKS, Rishav Kalita said such a decision was unilateral and contrary to government mandate which stipulated not to deduct wages and salaries for the period under closure due to lockdown in view of the outbreak of COVID-19. Kalita also said that it was ridiculous on the part of the management to provide 70 per cent of salary as ad-hoc advance at a time when the employees discharged their duties till 23.3.2020 adding that the ACKS would wait for 10-day financial locking period before it initiates further action.
When contacted, Binod Rajbongshi, DGM of Apeejay Tea, told The Sentinel that the present stalemate on the wage issue had nothing to do with COVID-19 lockdown but was due to overall recession in the tea industry and was a temporary arrangement even as the company sited references of two government letters on lockdown, besides other orders issued by the Labour Commissioner. The letter to ACKS by the management was issued at the behest of ITA/ABITA, he said. “We have sent further queries to ITA/ABITA on the development and will act according to its advice,” Rajbongshi revealed.
Konpai Das, Assistant Labour Commissioner of Tinsukia, said that his office had forwarded all letters received from the government time to time pertaining to COVID lockdown directives to tea garden managements. Though the department was yet to receive any formal complaint from the aggrieved ACKS, but once received, the office would initiate action in accordance with Disaster Management Act 2005, Das said.