By Anuradha Nagaraj
CHENNAI, India, Dec 18 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Police in India have arrested two tea plantation owners who shot at a group of employees demanding bonuses, in a case exposing the exploitation of tea pickers in the largest tea growing area in the world, campaigners said.
At least 15 workers were injured when owners of the Bogidhola Tea Estate in Assam opened fire to disperse a group of workers protesting the delay in payment of an annual bonus to mark the Durga Puja festival, police said.
"The owners had promised in writing to the labour department that they would pay the workers their festival bonus by Dec. 12," police officer Shankar Dayal told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"On Dec. 13, the workers were called to the owner's bungalow for further talks and that is where the firing took place."
The tea industry in Assam in India's northeast has been in crisis for years, with accusations of slave labour and exploitative work conditions, leading to labour disputes that have forced some plantations to shut.
Campaigners say unrest has been brewing among Assam's so-called tea tribes, whose forefathers were recruited by British planters from the neighbouring states of Bihar and Odisha more than a century ago.
The income of tea pickers in not enough to feed and provide medical care for their families, charities say.
"Bogidhola estate, like most others, was paying very low wages and had only recently agreed to pay the minimum wage of 137 Indian rupees ($2) per day," said Stephen Ekka of PAJHRA, an Assam-based charity fighting for tea workers' rights.
"The workers are not treated as human beings and there is an arrogance in the manner in which employers interact with them."
With the Bogidhola owners dithering on their promise to pay a 14 percent festival bonus, agitated workers surrounded their residence last Wednesday, demanding their dues.
In retaliation, the owners shot at them with a pistol and a gun, Dayal said. The owners have been booked on charges of attempt to murder and voluntarily causing injury, he said.
"During the Durga Puja festival in September, when the bonus was due, no lamps were lit in these homes, no new clothes bought and there was no festivity," said a member of the All Adivasi Students' Association of Assam, requesting anonymity as he is closely supporting the workers in the case.
"The workers used only legal methods to demand their rights. Over the past few months, their resilience was replaced by quiet desperation. And last week, they were fired on for demanding wages for work."
($1 = 64.1275 Indian rupees)
(Reporting by Anuradha Nagaraj, Editing by Ros Russell; Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking and climate change. Visit www.trust.org)
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