The recent strike by the tea workers has brought national attention to a largely forgotten community of Bangladesh. Very little is known about their ethnic identity, culture or what they think about their lives in general. Although several studies have been carried out by various agencies including UN agencies, they have not reached the public space. It is because the public are not interested in their life and living. They care about their cup of tea but not the tea workers.
This is only natural but the reason is that Bangladesh's majority population group's shushil middle class are narrow in their interest zone. They appear to less interested learning about their own citizens facing both structural and incidental discrimination. Not much will change soon but it's important that an information stream be created to let people know about the way of life of the tea workers.
Following is a brief profile of this population group which draws upon several studies including once done by the ILO.
• Tea plantation workers were brought to the Sylhet zone by British companies and belong to several ethnic and cultural groups. For a long while, only these workers imported from outside Bengal were working in the gardens. However, over time, a few Bengali workers from Barisal and Comilla have also been found among the tea workers.
• Many of the workers originate from Orissa and they speak Deshali which has a significant Bengali mix. There are workers who speak Bhojpuri also. Some speak modified Hindi. Asomiya, Oran,Munda, Telugu and Santali speakers have also been found. All these languages and dialects have mixed together to produce a tea-garden hybrid spoken by the workers.
• Ethnic groups include Lohar, RobiDas, Bagdee, Bhumij, Bauri, Bahadur, Nayek, Rikiason, Shobdokar, Ashon, Naidu, Donia, Rai, Munda,Chotree, Patra, Kalindee,Kumir, Halder, Kondo, Bhumia, Orao,Santal, Mahali, Barai,Rajbhar, Pashi,Kharia, Goala,Munda, Bunargee, Nunia, Uria, Kaloar, Bhuian, Kurmi and Khasis. They are marginalized Hindu groups from different parts of eastern India as well indigenous groups. However, their ancient tradition is not practiced by most. Bangladesh Adivasi Forum also does not recognize most of the communities as "indigenous " either.
• Very few of them are receiving higher education and employed outside the tea plantations. They also fear discrimination in the outside world. A college teacher, son of a tea garden worker, said that educated youth are not keen to return to plantation life. Most stay away from their tea garden origins and generally hide their identity. Given the kind of image, social status and public perception they have, this is only natural.
• Most of the workers are Hindus while some also practice animism. Christians and Muslims are very few but are there. Singing, dancing particularly Jhumur and lathi dance are popular during festivals. Durga Puja is the most popular cultural and religious festival.
• They are considered both a lower class and caste and largely avoided by Bengalis as a community. Most workers are intimidated by Bengalis so there is no inter-mixing. Language is also a barrier. As they speak little fluent Bangla, chances of mixing is also low. Interestingly, there are some groups -indigenous - who are not tea workers but who live in the plantation area. They are now being threatened with eviction.
Access to economics and social services
• Very few receive any form of GOB assistance (7.5%) and they are mostly excluded from any kind of government social safety programs. NGOs provide some services including credit, primary and non-formal education and sanitation etc. However, these were very inadequate. Around (56%) were members of credit groups but they were not able to say what their own savings were or what they planned to do with it.
• Wages + 90% of the workers are unsatisfied with their wages. 78% felt hugely overworked and 57% were unhappy with their work hours. Job security was satisfactory as it meant a lifetime employment but 60% were not happy with their workplace safety.
• Around 63% said that their rights were violated but few had any idea what their rights were. Both workers and trade union leaders think education is fundamental for change and believe that if their children are to have a better life, education is out. But the opportunity for education was hugely limited with almost no post primary schools in the plantations. And outside schools cost money and they have none of that. Most felt that lack of education condemned their life to servitude in the garden.
• One factor that kept them tied to the gardens was housing facilities so this acted as a malicious glue to the plantations even though many thought their life was one of high denial. Workers who have cultivated land that are sub-leased from the gardens are now being taken away by the owners and the government on the grounds of garden space extension or new gardens.
The profile shows that this community made up of several ethnic groups were some of the most discriminated against with no bargaining power. Not only is their life crushingly difficult but there are few options on the table for them to use as an escape route.
It's a life about intergenerational condemnation to a life which was not their choice to begin and continues to be the same.
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