Bangladesh Tea Workers’ Union is losing its influence on the tea plantation workers due to the incompetence of its leaders in negotiating the rights of the workers with the government and estate owners during the recent wage hike movement.
Leaders of the union have lost the trust of ordinary workers for their compromising attitude. When they agreed to fix the daily wage at Tk 145 and withdraw the strike during a meeting at the Labour Department Office in Srimangal on August 20, workers continued demonstrations rejecting the decision.
Supriyo Mahato, a worker at the Malnichara Tea Estate in Sylhet, said their leaders have become useless as they don’t have the guts to fight for the rights of the workers.
“If they think that we will accept whatever the decision they take like the previous years, then they are living in a fool’s paradise,” he said.
Some 150,000 workers of 167 tea gardens began conducting different programmes demanding a daily wage hike to Tk 300 from Tk 120 on August 9.
The tea estate owners proposed a Tk 134 daily wage but the workers went on an indefinite work abstention rejecting the proposal four days later.
On August 20, a tripartite meeting was held between government officials, tea garden owners and tea workers’ union leaders at Srimangal Labour Department. The meeting decided that the daily wage will be increased from Tk 134 to 145.
The next day, a meeting was held with the leaders of the tea workers at the Moulvibazar Deputy Commissioner’s office where five decisions were taken in a written memorandum in presence of all.
Bangladesh Tea Workers’ Union Vice-president Pankaj Kand and Acting General Secretary Nripen Pal went to Moulvibazar’s Kalighat Tea Garden on August 22 to inform the workers about those decisions and convince them to return to work.
Pankaj Kand was physically assaulted by the agitating workers there. According to locals, no union leader has ever faced such a situation in the past.President of Kalighat Tea Garden Panchayat Committee Ovan Tanti said, “The union leaders were supposed to discuss with us before taking any major decision. But they had accepted the decision of fixing our daily wage at Tk 145 without any consultation with us.”
The leaders of the panchayat committee of the tea plantations at Manu-Dhalai Valley convened a meeting on August 24 and formed Cha Sramik Santan Jubo Parishad (Tea Workers’ Children, Youth Organisation).
On the other hand, a new committee called the ‘Cha Sramik Adhikar Parishad’ (Tea Workers’ Rights Council) emerged in a meeting organised by the All Bagan Panchayat Committee of Kalighat Tea Garden in Balishira Valley on August 25.
“We have no faith in the union leaders. They struck a secret deal with the owners. We are contacting leaders of all valleys and panchayats to form a new committee,” said Mohan Rabi Das, President of Cha Sramik Santan Jubo Parishad.
Bangladesh Tea Workers’ Union Acting General Secretary Nripen Pal, however, rejected all allegations against them and accused the reformists of splitting the workers.
“We are the elected leaders of the tea workers. If we commit any mistake, tea workers will decide about us but the people who are forming new labour organisations have different intentions. They are influenced by outsiders,” he said.
The tea workers’ union as a trade union body was founded on June 3, 1948 as Srihatta District Tea workers’ Union.
Its first executive committee was formed on April 30, 1970. From June 1948 to May 2006, the union was run to establish workers’ rights under its own constitution, governed by labour laws.
According to labour leaders, local leaders of the then ruling parties directly intervened in the organisation in 2006 to reduce the influence of their political opponents from the independent and traditional trade unions.
In the following years, the owners and ministries concerned forced the workers to select the leaders of their choice at various times through farcical elections, which divided the members of the unions, they alleged.
Asked about the split in tea workers’ leadership, Bangladesh Jatiya Sramik Federation President Shamim Ara said, “Grievances of the tea workers increased gradually as their leaders behaved like puppets of the tea estate owners and administration. If new labour organisations emerge, their conflict will escalate further and the tea estate owners will exploit the situation in the future.”