While coming back from Lawachara National Park, Moulvibazar as a part of our family trip couple of months back, suddenly we wished to take a look at a nearest tea garden. Fading ray of parting sun shrouds the entire greenery. Vast long uneven green garden develops at the lap of hillock. It was rather wonderful. We could not resist ourselves at the moment to peep at this conspicuous verdancy. At first we were denied but allowed lastly on a condition that we must leave there within half an hour. This was my second experience of having any tea garden, first one was in Darjeeling. Entering upon, we found some workers mostly women having their meal sitting around together-- gaunt body with coppery face burned by sun. Raw-boned working men eagerly gazed at us. Handmade bread with green chilli and onion with little amount of vegetables were in their plate, I noticed. I asked one of them, how are they getting on with their daily sustenance with the small wage, they are paid? She replied downcasting and shared an untold tale of the workers daily life. Their sad story bleeds my heart.
Yes, the sad story begins from mid-nineteenth century when the first commercial-scale tea garden was established in 1854 in British era. They have been paid with very small amount since then. They were low-paid due to their social status and non-responsive attitude to the garden owners. They do not bargain or their low voices do not penetrate the richest man’s wall. They are not local origin-- mainly migrated from northern and north-eastern parts of India during the British period. Socially, the workers are vulnerable and lead unimaginably miserable lives within their locality. On the contrary, garden owners are giants and most of them are business tycoon like M. M. Ispahani Ltd, Kazi and Kazi, James Finely, Duncan Brothers among some others. Social researchers confirm that they are systematically exploited for ages as their issues were deliberately unheard.
Leaf-plucking workers are paid on their performances. Full payment requires collecting 23 kg leaf per day, and if they fail to fulfil the target they are cut proportionally. If someone exceeds the target they are paid take 3 per kg in addition to the minimum. Workers live very penurious life within the housing facility provided by the owners for permanent workers. That is not spacious and constrained with many restrictions. After all, the services rules are enacted in colonial period. Owners dealing with the workers are not fair.
The workers are extensively deprived of education, healthcare and nutrition. Child mortality, enrolment of elementary education, and social poverty has been reduced to some extent recently but civil rights are violated here largely. Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics discloses in 2018 that the poverty rate in teat garden is very high than the national rate. Tea related working men are near three lac in Bangladesh today, mostly living in Sylhet, Moulvibazar, and Chattogram – which are supposed to be costly cities. Plantation owners are taking advantages from these inoffensive labourers, many people claimed.
Now, more than one lac and a half workers of 166 tea gardens throughout the country went on strike for indefinite time with a demand for increasing their wage to three hundred taka per day, yet this amount is rather insufficient. Before going to the all out strike from August 13, they had been in two-hour work abstention form August 9 to warn the owners. But they did not pay any heed to their demand. Tea Plantation Workers’ Union (BCSU) and Tea Owners Association do not have any fruitful discussion yet.
Given the unabated price hike situation in the country, these low-paid workers had no alternative but to take the street. In 2020, tea workers union had a deal with the owners to increase their wages. But, their wages are in pending since January, 2021. No sign of implementation of the deal have been noticed from the owners’ part.
Now, the important question is, will the workers be able to press their demand properly without the assistance of government? Surely not. They do not have any organisational ability to foster the movement. Even they do not have the influential leader to make a proper rapport with government. A tripartite discussion should be held immediately among garden owners, workers union and, of course, government representatives to stop the modern day slavery. Bangladesh is the tenth tea producing country in the world and its position is ninth as an exporting country. About 64 percent of workers are female and their children are also involved in the leaf-plucking. Obviously its contribution to the national economy is huge. So, to save the workers and the industry, the government must intervene immediately.
The writer is a Professor, Dept. of Philosophy, Jagannath University, Dhaka