Consensual “minimum wages” have checked into hotels in Darjeeling town for the first time, an undeclared fallout of competitive politics.
The biggest hotel employees’ union in Darjeeling and the sole hotel owners’ association today set the threshold, which is still far lower than the government-prescribed minimum wages but offers hikes ranging from Rs 1,600 to Rs 3,700 a month.
The employees’ union and the hotel owners’ association have a common link: both are affiliated to the Gorkha Janmukti Morcha, the once-unchallenged force that is now facing competition from the Trinamul Congress.
Although the state government has fixed minimum wages for the unorganised sector – most hotels in the hills fall in this category since they have fewer than 20 employees – the rates were hardly implemented in Darjeeling.
With Trinamul snapping at its heels, the Morcha appears to have decided to make an attempt to keep the workers on its side although the union linked the move to the festival season.
The new minimum wages – categorised under the heads unskilled, semi-skilled and skilled – would be enforced with immediate effect. (See chart)
But even the minimum wage in the highest bracket (skilled) will continue to be below the rate prescribed by the labour department for the lowest (unskilled) segment in Darjeeling.
If the Morcha-backed minimum wage for a skilled employee is Rs 6,200, the floor set by the government for an unskilled worker is Rs 6,634 a month. (In Calcutta, the minimum wage prescribed for an unskilled worker is Rs 7,345 and a skilled worker Rs 8,888 a month.)
A representative of the Darjeeling Janmukti Hotel Owners’ Association said there would be no increase in tariff because of the rise in labour costs.
Of the 350-odd hotels in Darjeeling town, 320 are registered with the Darjeeling Janmukti Hotel Owners’ Association
The Janmukti Unorganised Sector Labour Union said the minimum wage decision was a festival season gesture. Saran Thami, the president of the union’s hotel arm, said: “For the first time in the hospitality sector of Darjeeling, we have managed to ink an agreement with the owners for a minimum salary for different categories. It is a festive gesture.”
A hill veteran said the smooth manner in which the negotiations proceeded “suggests that is a pre-emptive measure by the Morcha leadership to plug gaps that might let Trinamul into this sector”.
Trinamul is not sitting idle. A Trinamul Darjeeling district leader said: “We are definitely trying to spread our wings beyond tea gardens and forest workers. On November 3, we will hold a meeting to explore the possibility of forming unions for unorganised sector workers such as carpenters and masons, hotel workers and drivers.”
Trinamul does not have any formal presence in the hospitality industry in the hills now. The CPM-backed Citu has unions in a few hotels. “We have taken Citu into confidence,” Thami said.
He said the union and owners did not set a maximum salary for skilled workers in establishments employing 16 people or more as “we believe these individuals can bargain better with their salaries and experience”.
The workers’ union said salaries of the hotel staff in small establishments were as low as Rs 2,000. “There was a dire need to streamline salaries,” Thami said.
Even though the minimum wage fixed by the government is higher than that agreed upon today, the union said it had to be realistic in its demand. “Most of the small hotels will not be able to sustain themselves (if they pay the government-prescribed rate). We have tried to strike a balance so that our workers who got peanuts till now will get a better pay,” Thami said.
“The agreement is valid till August 31, 2018, after which there is a provision to increase the basic salary by 15 per cent,” said Samir Singhal, the treasurer of the Darjeeling Janmukti Hotel Owners’ Association.
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