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Tea workers’ miseries know no bound

Indefinite strike on for a daily wage of Tk 300


Published : 14 Aug 2022 08:56 PM

Although the journey of tea industry in Bangladesh started 168 years ago, the daily wage of labourers in the tea gardens of the country is not even Tk 168 at present.

 The wage for a tea garden worker is Tk 120 per day, which is the lowest amount than any other sector in the country. The amount paid for a tea garden worker is not enough to buy a decent half-meal as food prices have been increasing.

Talking to Bangladesh Post on Sunday, a tea garden worker said that the amount is barely enough to buy food, let alone other necessities. 

“Nowadays we can’t even afford coarse rice for our family with the amount of daily wage of Tk 120,” said Radika Jadab, a worker at Madabpur Tea Estate at Komalganj in Moulvibzar.

Sreemoti Chasha, a worker at Lalakhal Tea Estate at Jaintiapur upazila in Sylhet, said that they eat bread in the morning and afternoon, and rice at night. With rice, they eat lentils, potatoes or some other vegetables. She further said that they buy meat once a year during Puja when the owners pay bonus.

Saraswati Bauri, a worker at Lalchand Tea Estate at Chunarughat in Habiganj, said that she took the job in tea garden after her father died three years ago. Now the breadwinner for the family of five, in her late 20s, gets Tk 120 as daily wage. 

“How will I support my family under such circumstances? I need to feed my two children and elderly mother. I can’t meet the expenses with Tk 120 per day as prices of essentials are rising,” she said.

Rights activists said that the minimum daily wage for a tea garden worker should be fixed at Tk 600. 

“Tea garden workers lead a very miserable life as they are the least-paid labourers in the country. No one pays attention to their demand of increasing the wage,” said Champa Koli Paul, a rights activist who works for the rights of the tea garden workers.

“Tea workers are like modern-day slaves,” said Philip Gain, director of the Society for Environment and Human Development, a research group. He has written books on tea workers.

According to the latest gazette of Bangladesh government, published on August 16 in 2021, the lowest-paid among the workers in the construction and wood sector, Jogalis (helpers) and labourers will get a daily wage of Tk 620 in rural areas and Tk 680 in urban areas.

 “In our country, the tea garden workers start working from sunrise and continue until sunset for the daily wage of Tk 120, which is also much lower than that of Indian tea garden workers. Other benefits received by tea garden workers is also scanty,” said Nipen Paul, acting general secretary of Bangladesh Tea Workers’ Union.

 Razu Goala, president of Sylhet unit of Bangladesh Tea Workers’ Union, said, “Tea garden workers cannot improve their life with the lowest earning. They are deprived of education, quality accommodation and health facilities. Having no other skills, they cannot get rid of this tragic life. Against the backdrop of the situation, the tea garden workers remain isolated from the mainstream job sector,” he added.

 Although the tea workers get lowest wages and they are deprived of many other basic rights, no one cares about ill-fated life of the workers.

 When over Tk 600 has been fixed as daily minimum wage in other sectors, the tea garden workers have been demanding a daily wage of Tk 300 from their current wage Tk 120. They were demanding a Tk 180 increase in their daily wage in light of the recent price hikes of essentials.

 Tea garden workers and leaders of tea workers’ union said that the authorities concerned did not pay any heed to their demand. 

“None understands our pain. We work so hard, but don’t get paid fairly. There are expenses for our treatment and our children’s education. While prices of daily essentials are increasing regularly, our wages are not,” said Ramvojan Kairi, secretary of Sreemangangal unit of Bangladesh Tea Workers’ Union.

 Lakshimani Singh, a tea garden worker, said, “We have to stand all the daylong in the scorching heat while working. Sometimes, we get drenched in rain. Sometimes, insects bite us. We work despite all these difficulties. Tk 120 is not a fair wage considering the present situation.”

 The tea garden workers went on an indefinite work abstention across the country from August 13 to meet their demand. They continued their indefinite strike for second consecutive day on Sunday. However, the indefinite strike will be suspended for the two days due to the general weekend and national mourning day.

 Workers from 167 tea gardens across the country, including those in Chattogram and Sylhet, enforced the programme following Bangladesh Tea Workers Union’s call on Friday.

 Bijoy Hajra, a leader of Bangladesh Tea Workers’ Union, said that around 150,000 tea garden workers across the country began observing the strike since Saturday morning.

 As part of the programme, workers of different tea gardens formed human chains, staged demonstrations and blockaded roads on Saturday and Sunday.

 During their strike, the tea garden workers blockaded several points on the Dhaka-Sylhet regional highway in Moulvibazar.

 “No tea garden worker will pluck tea leaves or work in the leaf processing plants as long as the authority doesn’t pay heed to our demands,” said a worker, Radika Jadab, of Madabpur Tea Estate at Komalganj in Moulvibzar.

 Calling it a logical demand, leaders of Bangladesh Tea Workers Union called upon the owners of the tea garden to adjust the daily wage in accordance with the current market price.

 Earlier on Friday, the tea garden workers observed a two-hour work abstention for the fourth consecutive day demanding a daily wage of Tk 300 due to the price hike of daily essentials.

 Bangladesh produces a record amount of tea every year through the toil of the tea workers. In 2021, a record 96 million kilograms of tea was produced in the country due to the hard labour of the underpaid tea garden workers.

 “Normally, tea garden workers’ wages are fixed through agreement between the Bangladeshi Tea Association, an association of tea estate owners, and Bangladesh Tea Workers’ Union,” said Nipen Paul, acting general secretary of the union.

 The current wages had been fixed for 2019 and 2020 through an agreement. As per the agreement signed in October in 2020, the wages are supposed to be revised in every two years. That year the workers got a raise with retrospective effect from January 2019.

 “According to the agreement, the wages were supposed to be revised in January 2021 again. But the owners did not do it. The tea garden workers have been demanding their pay hike for the last one and half years,” said Nipen Paul.

 During the period, tea garden owners held multiple meetings with the workers and proposed a raise from Tk 120 to Tk 134. The workers rejected it and demanded a daily wage of Tk 300.

 “As prices of essentials are increasing, we will not be able to survive without a substantial wage hike. Our work abstention will continue until our demand is met,” said Nipen Paul

 Pankaj A Kanda, vice president of Sreemangal unit of Bangladesh Tea Workers’ Union, said, “Tk 134 daily wage is in no way a standard payment. A family can’t survive with this wage.”

 “We can’t buy a litre of edible oil with our daily wage. How can we then even think about our nutrition, medication, or children's education?” he asked.

 Mohammad Nahidul Islam, deputy director at the Department of Labour in Sreemangal of Moulvibazar, said that the law states the owners and the workers will formally inform the department if they cannot agree on a deal on pay. The department will take steps within 30 working days to find a solution, but no side has written to the authorities this time. 

“We have informed the high-ups about the matter and issued some instructions to the workers’ leaders,” he said.

 Tea cultivation started at Malnichhara Tea Garden in Sylhet in 1854 during the period of British rule in the subcontinent. At present, according to the Bangladesh Tea Development Board, there are 167 tea gardens in the country. According to the Tea Workers Union, 117,000 thousand registered and about 25,000 unregistered workers work in these tea gardens.