Royal Commission on Labour in India: Report(1929)||
NOTE ON WAGE-FIXING MACHINERY IN ASSAM
BY SIR ALEXANDER MURRAY.
The question of wage-fixing machinery in Assam is discussed as considerable length in this chapter. While I agree that the creation of such machinery is desirable, I think it necessary to state the special considerations which have led me to this conclusion. The Indian Tea Association in its memorandum stated that, as so few labourers work the full number of days, it considered that, the statutory establishment of a minimum wage is unnecessary and would be difficult to enforce. It also drew attention to the fact that a large percentage of the labour force cultivate land of their own and are in a different position from industrial workers who are dependent on their earnings for their livelihood. The representatives of the Association who gave evidence before us stated that adjustments of wages were left to the District, Sub-Committees of the Assam Branches. Only superintendents and managers of gardens are eligible to serve on these Committees and a suggestion made by one of our members that they might co-opt suitable representatives of labour and possibly Government officials to determine the minimum wage or the common standard for the districts was considered worthy of consideration by the representatives of the Association who stated that. if they had a, scheme put before them, they would consider it. They however, did not consider that conditions on tea estates were so unsatisfactory, as compared with other industries in India and with those in the districts from which the labour emigrates, as to necessitate such a scheme in Assam.
The scheme now put forward in the Report gives details of matters that require consideration but, in my opinion, more attention should be given to the objections and difficulties indicated by the representatives of the Association and the planters in their evidence before us. Apart from difficulties arising out of differences within the estates themselves, these representatives took objection to singling out tea specially and Assam tea in particular for the introduction of an innovation in the form of a Wage Board.
While indicating that they might not object if the principle were applied to all industries in India, they emphasised that they were more concerned with the wages of agricultural labour than those of industrial labour. These objections are based on the fact that it is exceptional to create wage-fixing machinery for agriculture and that, elsewhere, it is usual to apply such machinery in the first, instance to sweated industries where organisation is defective.
The Report makes special reference to the high degree of organisation reached in Assam, where 90% of the acreage under tea is represented by the Indian Tea Association. Very early in the history of tea cultivation in Assam, the need for organisation and common action was recognised. As far back as 1859, it was found necessary to form a Tea Planters' Association for the, purpose, amongst others, of organising a system of emigration to Assam. Other labour or recruiting organisations followed until in 1.892 the Association, now known as the Tea. Districts Labour Association, was formed to supervise recruitment. The Labour Enquiry Committee of 1906 emphasised the necessity for effective organisation to discourage and prevent enticement of imported labour from one garden to another. The Enquiry Committee of 1921-22 suggested that the District Sub-Committees of the Assam, Branches of the Indian Tea Association should recommend decent monthly or daily rates of wages and the representatives of the Association in evidence before us stated that in certain cases these Committees increased the wages or reduced the tasks. Notwithstanding these long continued efforts on the part of employers, the need for combined action continues and indeed is recognised in our Report which contains many suggestions for increased common effort on the part of all concerned in the cultivation of tea.
The Report deals fully with the many factors which have contributed to the continued scarcity of tea garden labour in Assam and contains recommendations designed to remove some of the existing difficulties. The representatives of the Indian Tea Association and of the planters consider that the removal of restrictions on recruiting including freedom of propaganda, coupled with the right of repatriation for new recruits, will ensure a more plentiful supply of labour. It is hoped that, in this respect, the experience of organised industries in other parts of India will be repeated. In the case of Assam, however, the problems arising out of the long distances from recruiting areas continue and meantime make it difficult for tea garden workers, if they so desire, to find their way back to the villages without assistance from their employers. This, indeed, is one of the differences between Assam and other plantations, e.g., Madras, where ample supplies of labour are available within easy reach. There is every likelihood, therefore, that organised recruitment and some measure of control will continue to be necessary for some time in the case of Assam tea, gardens. In ordinary circumstances, scarcity of labour and the demand for it in competition with other industries should create conditions that would make wage fixing machinery unnecessary.
The conditions obtaining in Assam, however, are exceptional and require special treatment. This is all the more necessary in view of the extent to which the free movement of labour to that province has been, and continues to be, adversely affected by objections to free recruitment made from the United Provinces on one side to Madras on the other. The association of representatives of labour with the organisations of employers in the establishment of suitable machinery for dealing with questions of wages would create confidence as well as make it difficult for any employer to pay his workers less than the rates generally ruling in his district.
These are the special considerations which have led me to believe that, in all the circumstances, the establishment of wage-fixing machinery in Assam is desirable in the interests of employers and employed alike. The existence of an Association representing 90% of the acreage under tea should make complete organisation possible on the employers' side. The absence of any organisation which can represent the interests of the workers, on the other hand, is a serious difficulty which will require special consideration. Apart from variations in the nature of the soil and in the work and yields on different estates, there are other circumstances peculiar to Assam which necessitate careful investigation. These include the part-time nature of the employment in most areas, the recognition of absenteeism to provide spare time for those who have rice lands or other subsidiary occupations to attend to and generally the advisability of allowing as great a measure of freedom as possible to the different classes of workers. The differences in the nature end cash value of concessions and allowances given to workers and the maintenance of registers to show actual working hours and earnings of individual workers will add to the difficulties of enforcement and administration. All these factors indicate that careful previous enquiries are necessary before it can be decided that the establishment of statutory wage-fixing machinery is practicable in the tea plantations of Assam,
I am of the opinion that full advantage should be taken of the high degree of organisation and experience of the Indian Tea Association and of the Assam Branches and District Committees. They should be invited to consider the extent to which machinery of the type suggested is practicable and can be made effective. If possible, they should prepare a scheme under which representatives of the workers can be associated with the representatives of employers. Full representation of all interests concerned is desirable and, as in Ceylon, it may be found necessary to make statutory provision for effective enforcement and for the inclusion of an independent element by the appointment of suitable Government officials. The practice in Ceylon, where the system of separate District Boards is in force, points to the advisability of utilising the experience of existing organisations in Assam in the shape of District Committees. Questions regarding the most suitable type of machinery and the most likely methods of enforcement and administration are matters which can safely be left to Government and the industry for consideration.