As laws to protect labour from exploitation and inequality are on the concurrent list, the onus is on states to amend the various acts to safeguard their interests, Union Labour and Employment Minister Mallikarjun Kharge said Sunday.
“You should approach state governments for amending labour laws as the constitution empowers them to do under the concurrent list and ensure a fair deal to sustain your workforce,” Kharge told commodity planters of the southern states here.
Noting that labour laws varied from one state to other as they were region and industry specific, Kharge, however, assured the planters that the central government would also amend its laws applicable to the plantation sector so as to protect interests of employees and employers, especially with respect to the Minimum Wages Act.
“As you are already facing labour shortage due to various factors and migration of their younger generation to cities for better prospects, you have to be pro-active and sensitive to their needs to retain and make them more productive,” Kharge said at the 118th annual conference of the United Planters’ Association of Southern India (Upasi).
The commodity plantation sector plays an integral role in the economy of the three southern states, which account for almost the entire production of coffee, natural rubber and spices and 21 percent of the tea produced in the country.
Of the country’s 1.6-million growers and 2.4 million labourers involved in the sector, around 79 percent (1.4 million) of growers, majority of them small and tiny, and 57 percent (1.4 million) of the workforce are engaged in south India.
“As the plantation sector is labour-intensive, with the burden of social cost, planters and corporates have to strike a balance between achieving targets and welfare of their employees by improving facilities, work environment and living standards so as to meet their growing aspirations,” Kharge asserted.
Earlier, outgoing Upasi president C.N. Nataraj told the minister that wages were more than twice the price at which tea was sold.
“Wages and prices equated to 100 in 1991 are at 563 and 234, reflecting the mismatch between productivity and returns. Similarly, input cost has shot up due to rising fertiliser prices,” Nataraj lamented.
Calling for productivity-linked wages in the sector, Nataraj said incentives and subsidy given to the farm sector should be extended to commodity plantations to make them economically and socially viable.
“Though the overall health of the plantation sector was better than in the recent past due to remarkable turn-around in the price levels of coffee, rubber and spices (pepper and cardamom), rising production cost of tea was a cause for concern,” Nataraj said.
The surprise presence of veteran film actress and Lok Sabha member from Rampur constituency in Uttar Pradesh, Jayaprada, livened up an otherwise drab inaugural session, which was, ironically, the last function of the two-day event.
Bad weather and re-scheduling the conference from September second week to October third weekend kept away a large number of planters and other stakeholders from the event, including commodity review and technical sessions.
“This is the first time in the history of Upasi that its annual meet had to be put off for want of VIPs (central ministers and lawmakers) to inaugurate it. About 60 percent of the planters chose to skip this time due to fickle climate, heavy fog and sudden downpour,” S. Balliappa, a coffee planter from Karnataka, told IANS.
Even the number of exhibitors from the sector and its associated industry players declined 50 percent, as truant weather thwarted their plans to showcase their equipment and technologies at the wet venue adjacent to the Upasi headquarters on the slopes of the dense wooded hills.
Barring Rubber Board chairperson Sheela Thomas, chairmen of other state-run boards for tea, coffee and spices and their deputies were not present on the occasion, disappointing the planters as well as the beleaguered organisers.