The tea garden workers in Bangladesh, who are mainly women, are one of the poorest, most marginalised, and exploited groups in the country, with limited access to education for their children and prone to dire health risks. Social and economic exclusion mean workers have no alternative to working under highly exploitative conditions in the tea industry. Their extreme marginalisation vis-a-vis the rest of society is the main factor driving modern slavery in the Bangladesh tea industry.

This has been a long-held consensus, that working conditions of tea workers are extremely poor, characterised by long hours, low pay, inadequate accommodation, and very limited education and healthcare facilities - leading to them lagging behind the rest of the population in human development indicators.

The tea industry in Bangladesh was established by the British in the 1800s. The overwhelming majority of tea garden workers in the country are descendants of immigrants brought in by the British from different parts of British India. This means they have no place other than the tea gardens to go to in Bangladesh.

Socially, they live and work in the tea gardens and hardly enjoy any interaction with the mainstream population, who also look down on them because they are typically low caste Hindus. The payment system prevalent in the tea gardens (particularly for leaf pickers) promotes modern slavery: workers have to reach daily targets (typically 24 kg) and have their wages cut if they fall short - many thus work longer hours or rope in family members (e.g. children) to ensure they meet the target.

That means the Tk 120 daily wage that we are hearing about during the latest protest is only paid to those who manage to pick and submit 24kg of leaves. At the end of a long day's work outdoors, they have to wait to have their pickings weighed, and only then if they hit their target, do they get the full Tk 120. Each extra kilogram supplements their pay by just Tk 3. In the context of the recent price hikes, these are extremely difficult times for the tea workers.

That is why the workers of 167 tea gardens across the country, including 92 of Moulvibazar of Sylhet, went on strike for six straight days this week, while the garden owners proposed a daily wage hike by only Tk 20 against the workers' demand of an increase to Tk 300 from Tk 120.

The owners offered to increase the wage from Tk 120 to Tk 140 at a meeting with tea workers at the Dhaka office of the Labour Department on Wednesday night. Leaders of Bangladesh Tea Association, an organisation of tea garden owners, and Bangladesh Tea Workers' Union, an organisation of tea workers, took part in the meeting.

After the meeting, which ended close to midnight, Bijoy Hazra, organising secretary of Bangladesh Tea Workers Union, demanded the prime minister's intervention in this regard on behalf of the workers.

Nipen Pal, central general secretary (acting) of Bangladesh Tea Workers' Union, said, "We didn't accept what the owners have proposed. Tea workers from all over the country are looking up to us. We will not compromise if we do not get a proper wage. Our movement will continue as well."

On the other hand, Shah Alam, president of Bangladesh Tea Association, that represents the estates, said, "We discussed the issue with the worker leaders. Hopefully, we will be able to give an update on the wages later."

Khaled Mamun Chowdhury, director general of the Department of Labour, said, "Our discussions continue. We have asked the workers to call off the strike. They will inform us of their decision."

Meanwhile, a general diary was filed with Sreemangal Police Station on behalf of four tea gardens, alleging that raw tea leaves are being wasted due to the workers' strike. This reflects the hardball tactics being employed by the owners, who have refused to budge significantly from their original positions.

The tea estates in Sylhet and Chittagong are allegedly losing daily tea leaves worth more than Tk 20 crores due to the recent workers' unrest in the peak season of tea production.

Humayun Kabir, inspector (investigation) of the police station said, "The assistant managers of Rajghat, Dinston, Amrail Chhara and Balishira tea gardens filed separate GDs on Wednesday night. The allegations will be investigated."

Another tripartite meeting is scheduled to take place in Dhaka on August 23, led by the Labour and Employment Minister. But are we likely to see any kind of intervention on behalf of these hapless workers before that?

The owners' view

The Bangladesh Tea Association, the representative body of all tea estates of the Greater Sylhet and Chittagong, in a statement Tuesday disputed the daily wage figure for tea workers that has gained traction in the media, amid the workers' movement.

The BTA claims that once you count the monetary value of their additional benefits, average tea worker's wages and benefits amount to at least Tk 400 per day.

In addition to daily cash wages, direct benefits include overtime, annual leave allowance, festival leave allowance, sick leave allowance, provident fund, work attendance allowance, and administrative allowance, work out to almost twice the average daily wage in cash.

Tea workers have not actually contradicted this - their movement this time is aimed at a hike in the cash wages, that they have said is Tk 120 per day. And when you count allowances so liberally, including a 'work attendance allowance', you can easily throw about numbers to suit your own perspective.

The estates however would prefer to focus on the benefits. According to BTA, the benefits to the workers are valued at Tk 175 per day to ensure their social development and civic benefits.

To ensure food security, 42.46 kg of rice or wheat ration per month is provided to workers at the rate of Tk 2 per kg through subsidy from the plantation owners. Moreover, about 94,200 bighas of land has been allocated for agricultural use of the workers with the aim of strengthening the food security of the workers.

The 190-year-old industry complies with Bangladesh labour laws quite strictly, the owners say. Women workers are getting 16 weeks of paid maternity leave. Housing for workers is built on a total of 5,800 bighas of land, with each employee receiving a residence complying with agreed standards.

A total of 891 medical personnel are employed in 2 big size group hospitals and 84 garden hospitals with 721 beds and 155 dispensers to provide workers health protection. Where there is no hospital, local government and private medical practitioners provide regular service.

A total of 768 primary, junior, and high schools have been established to ensure "quality education" for workers' children, with 44,171 students presently receiving free education from 1,232 teachers.

Besides, comprehensive financial aid is offered to retired employees through allowance, different labour welfare programs such as clean drinking water, anti-malaria medication, hygienic toilets, assistance during religious and cultural festivals and so on. After the retirement of a tea worker, other members of his/her family will be employed as a tea worker, which is included in a tea worker's contract.

There are however serious question marks over the quality of housing, healthcare and education the tea workers are provided by the estates.

Much left to be desired

Applying both qualitative and quantitative research methods, Transparency International Bangladesh conducted a major study on working conditions and the overall work environment in the tea industry of Bangladesh in 2018.

It found that the highest monthly wage of a tea worker was Tk 5,231 with all allowances included, which is lower than any other sector in Bangladesh. At the time, tea workers got Tk 102 as their daily wage - this has since been raised to Tk 120. Non-permanent workers get less than their permanent peers. The survey also found that none of the garden authorities paid double for overtime, even though this is stipulated in a provision of labour law. The research showed that 11.6 percent of permanent workers were left out of the provident fund facility.

TIB found that the gardens don't have tube wells or any permanent system for availing drinking water, nor do they have an adequate number of toilets for workers. Besides, 57 percent of tea workers claimed that the garden authorities do not provide any kind of protection materials like masks, gloves, shoes, glass etc. during spreading pesticides.

Although tea garden owners are supposed to provide accommodation for each tea worker and their family, 32,299 permanent and temporary labourers do not have a separate home to live in as per the information of Bangladesh Tea Board. Furthermore, some houses provided by owners are constructed of wood and tin, in most cases without doors, windows or fences. In 90.6 percent of the cases, a labourer gets only one room where he has to stay with other family members including parents, siblings, wife, and children and even with the cattle.

When it comes to electricity, some garden owners do not even make connections available in workers' houses. The situation prompted 27.9 percent of workers to depend on kerosene light for their houses. Regarding healthcare, the research says 11 of the 64 gardens did not set up any health centre or dispensary. Around 61.7 percent of workers said they had to purchase medicine from outside the gardens while 79.1 percent said owners did not provide the money.The TIB research revealed some additional factors that exacerbated the modern slavery tea workers have to endure in Bangladesh. For example, the workers cannot put on any form of headwear in front of the garden managers, assistant managers and heads of panchayats (village councils). Sometimes people in these positions even order the tea workers to take off their shoes.The Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments is supposed to conduct investigations to ensure labour rights in the tea gardens of Bangladesh, but they are often corrupted and sing according to the tune of the estate owners.

'A colonial mentality'

In view of the ongoing movement, TIB has urged the authorities concerned to raise the wages of the tea workers logically through discussion instead of threatening to stop the peaceful movement across the country.

Tea workers' daily wage of only Tk120 after working for eight hours and sometimes even more with limited facilities is discriminatory and unconstitutional, the graft watchdog body said in a statement on Tuesday. Following the strike of the tea workers amid the rise in commodity prices, the proposal to increase their wages to just Tk 140 is a violation of their rights, it added.

TIB Executive Director Iftekharuzzaman said the ministries concerned should take steps to determine a logical wage acceptable to tea workers through equality-based discussions considering the rights of the tea workers as citizens of the country.

While the workers have been trying to draw the attention of the tea garden authorities through a strike for the past several days, the director general of the labour department recently termed the strike a violation of labour law in a letter, said Iftekharuzzaman.

"It is nothing but an expression of solidarity with the colonial mentality of the tea industry owners, " he said.

He also said the Minimum Wage Board of the country has set the minimum wage for different industries several times.

"But the Ministry of Labour and Employment recommended maintaining the minimum wage set by the tea garden owners ignoring the guideline of the ministry being influenced by some invisible force. And it needs to be looked into," he added.

There is a rule of renewing the wage agreement between the tea workers and the garden authorities every two years. Although in most cases the wages are fixed unilaterally by the garden authorities, the tea workers have been out of the wage agreement for the past 19 months.

A theatre of modern slavery

The tea industry was established in Bangladesh by the British. The first commercial tea garden was set up in Sylhet in 1854. Workers for the tea gardens were brought in from other parts of the Indian Subcontinent, largely from Bihar and Orissa, as well as Madras, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and other areas. Most of those targeted were poor and vulnerable, typically from low caste communities. Brokers lured them to Sylhet with promises of job opportunities and a better standard of living - promises which did not materialise.

Over 150 years and four or five generations later, little has changed. Tea garden workers in Bangladesh today are overwhelmingly the descendants of those original immigrants. One researcher reported that virtually every tea worker they met in north-eastern Bangladesh was able to trace their ancestry back to immigrants from Bihar and Orissa. Their ability to trace their ancestry back that far was taken as a testament to how isolated they remained even after so many decades. "Across generations the tea plantation workers remained almost entirely the descendants of those trafficked workers, with few new workers entering the plantations - and almost none leaving."

It is perhaps ironic then, that a study commissioned by the British government has asserted that the conditions prevalent in the tea industry of Bangladesh promote modern slavery, mentioning the payment system as particularly exploitative. Today, the BTA proudly boasts that Bangladesh contributes about 3% of global tea production, and is among the top 10 exporters of the leaf. According to 2021 figures, the market is valued at roughly Tk 3,500 crore, and the industry contributes approximately 1 percent of the country's GDP. Surely that is all the more reason, to raise the working and living conditions of the workers on whose backs all the success is built.

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