Bangladeshi tea production and exports boom, but plantation workers live on the fringes
And yet, the workers at whose expense this growth pays off are systematically denied their rights to decent wages and decent working and living conditions.
Tea garden workers say their leaders hold different schemes every year to register their demands with authorities on May Day, but with little or no impact.
These workers tear leaves with the sweat from their brows in the scorching sun and get wet in the incessant rain, yet they remain victims of unequal pay, unable to meet their basic living expenses.
Bangladesh has been an independent nation for 50 years, but these tea garden workers have been working there for almost 175 years.
Tea workers also struggle to get timely and good quality health care, access to clean water and provide their children with a decent education.
Women bear the heaviest burden of systemic inequality, as they are concentrated in the lowest paid picking roles and also do most of the unpaid household work.
The main demands of the workers this year are the acquisition of land rights and a salary increase that will allow them to live without struggle.
Officials say there are 80,000 laborers working in 93 tea plantations in Moulvibazar district.
Parimal Singh Baraik, a tea worker leader, said, “Our salary is Tk 120 and some rations. The workers spend their days with their family, which includes their fathers, mothers, spouses and children, with this salary.
“The story of these workers will sound like a myth even in modern times, if no one witnesses it firsthand.”
Bijay Bunarji, another tea worker leader from the Sreemangal Rajghat Union Parishad Council, said, “The population of the tea plantations has increased now. Even if there are two or three members of a family capable of working, only one will engage in the tea plantation.
“Some families also work temporarily with a daily wage of only Tk 85. This is not enough for their education, health care or sanitation.”
Another tea worker leader, Dilip Kairi, who is also a teacher, said these workers resided on land throughout their 200-year lineage. “How long will it take them to possess the land?” he asked.
According to the law, the people of the areas surrounding the tea gardens got the ownership of the land they live on, but no luck for these workers despite their hard work and active contribution to the economy of the country.
Another leader, Md Selim Haque, thinks it is crucial to establish public primary schools in these tea gardens to raise the level of their education.
“In the 50 years since independence not all tea gardens have schools. Some were established in Sreemangal several years ago on the instruction of the Prime Minister.”
Bijay Hazra, Chairman of Balishira Valley Committee of Sreemangal Upazila of the Cha Shramik Union of Bangladesh, said that Bangladesh started producing tea commercially in 1984 at Malinicchara of Sylhet.
Previously, the British and the owners of tea plantations had brought in people from different states of the Indian subcontinent, making them false promises of employment in these tea plantations. These people were mainly busy cleaning the tea plantations at the expense of some money that was of no use outside the gardens.
Some of these workers have lost their lives to snakebites and attacks by wild animals. But they couldn’t go back to their country because they had no money. Without any other means, they spend generations producing tea in these areas created by their ancestors.
Bangladesh Tea Workers Union President Makhan Lal Karmakar said workers now want their land rights.
GM Shibli, chairman of Bangladesh Tea Parliament Sylhet Valley, said tea estate owners and the government are working to improve the livelihoods of these workers.
The current salary for a tea garden worker is Tk 120 but this comes with accommodation, medical care, rations and fuel. Thus, the total salary is around Tk 350, Shibli claimed.
The Cha Sramik union and the owners of the estate conclude a two-year contract every two years, which includes a mandate to increase the wages of the workers. Their salary will also increase in the next term.
On the matter, AKM Rafiqul Haque, Acting Director of Project Development Unit of Bangladesh Tea Board, said that an academic trust for tea garden workers has been set up to improve their education as directed by the Prime Minister. Minister Sheikh Hasina.
Since the establishment of the trust, more than 26,000 workers’ children have received an allowance, while other facilities for these workers led by the Prime Minister are still in operation.
[Written in English by Syed Mahmud Onindo, edited by Biswadip Das]