The invisible chain binding the tea gardens

Hemlata Bauri (65) earns tk 60 for a full day's work at Daluchhera Tea Garden in Fenchuganj upazila, Sylhet district. She is paid a daily wage, so she does not get a weekly holiday. If she opts to work on a public holiday, she only gets Tk 30 for it. For these wages, she has to reach a nirikh (daily quota) of 20 kgs of tealeaves to qualify for the daily cash payment – hard work under the heat of the midday sun in the hilly tea garden terrains of Sylhet. Bauri has been a tea worker for nearly 50 years now. She became a 'registered worker' many years after she joined, but she has never been issued an appointment letter, which the owner is compelled to issue according to labour law. The workers of this tea garden are not members of the Bangladesh Cha Sramik Union (BCSU), the only trade union for around 160 tea gardens that have around 122,000 workers. It is also the largest trade union in the country. Daluchhera Tea Estate, one of 19 tea gardens in Sylhet district, is a small garden with 34 registered and 15 casual workers. It is a ‘C’ class garden, which means its production capacity is less than that of ‘A’ and ‘B’ class gardens. Our recent investigation shows unprecedented irregularities in wage payment at Daluchhera. The chairman of the panchayet of the tea garden, Barma Turia, informed us that “wages here was Tk30 even four years ago.” The workers of the garden demanded a pay rise when wages in other gardens increased. The workers and the owners side sat together and determined the current daily cash pay of Tk60. However, a condition was imposed of a minimum of 12 hours of work a day. Turia informed us that workers end up working around eight hours a day instead.

Such cash pay is a clear breach of written agreement between the owners’ association and BCSU.

Rambhajan Kairi, the general secretary of BCSU reaffirmed, “Paying lower wages is not just a breach of agreement between the owner and workers, but also a violation of the Labour Law. The agreement was indeed made under the rubric of Labour Law 2006.” According to this agreement, daily cash payments for ‘C’ class gardens is Tk82 and, Tk85 and Tk83 for ‘A’ and ‘B’ class gardens respectively, effective from January 2015. The condition at Daluchhera is believed to be the worst in all the 160 tea gardens in the traditional tea growing five districts—Sylhet, Maulvibazar, Habiganj, Chittagong and the Rangamati Hill District. However, the conditions of tea workers and their communities, with a huge proportion of them generally being non-Bengali, is very different from other industrial workers in terms of their identities and access to justice as workers. The British companies, more than 150 years ago, brought these tea workers from Bihar, Madras, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and other places in India to work in the tea gardens in Sylhet region.

The misfortune of these indentured laborers started with their journey to the tea gardens.

According to one account, in the early years, a third of the tea plantation workers died during their long journey to the tea gardens and due to the tough work and living conditions. Upon arrival, these labourers received a new identity – that of coolie – and became property of the tea companies. These coolies, belonging to many ethnic identities, cleared jungles, planted and tended tea seedlings and saplings, planted shade trees, and built luxurious bungalows for tea planters. But they had their destiny tied to their huts in the “labor lines” that they built themselves.

Today, what is most concerning for the tea workers is their wages—daily or monthly.

The maximum daily cash pay for the daily rated worker in 2008 was Tk 32.50 (less than half a US$), which was raised to Tk 48.50 (US 63 cents) by the first ever minimum wage board assigned for the tea workers that went into effect from September 1, 2009. This was still a miserable pay that had severe effects on the daily life of tea workers. As a result of negotiations between the workers' representatives and the owners mediated by the government, the daily cash pay of the tea workers was raised to Tk 69, which went into effect from June1, 2013.

The conditions of tea workers and their communities, with a huge proportion of them generally being non-Bengali, is very different from other industrial workers in terms of their identities and access to justice as workers

The current (2015) central committee of BCSU, in its latest agreement with the Bangladesh Tea Association, had been able to raise the daily cash pay to Tk 85 for A-class gardens, Tk 83 for B-class gardens and Tk 82 for C-class gardens. This new wage structure went into effect from January 2015.

It was also the first time in the history of the tea industry that workers began to get paid for weekly holidays (on Sunday).

It was also the first time that owners agreed to provide gratuity, which however, is not yet given in any garden. The excuse the owners use for such low pay is fringe benefits given to workers. The key fringe benefits include free housing and concessional rate of ration (rice/wheat) at Tk 2.00 per kg. A worker, on average, gets around seven kgs of food grains at concessional rate. The houses provided are basic. The workers are obviously very unhappy about these wages. “The current wages, Tk85 per day, are unjust. In the agreement that will be effective from January 2017, we will demand a daily cash pay of Tk230. It is still not enough, but we are demanding this in consideration of the overall situation,” says Rambhajan Kairi, who is leading on-going negotiations with the owners on behalf of the workers. “But the owners are proposing Tk95. This is very illogical and unjust. We will not accept it in any way.” “The owners are also not yet paying gratuity,” says Kairi, “which is a breach of our agreement.”

Confined to the tea gardens, tea workers are considered to modern-day slaves by many, and are one of the most vulnerable peoples of Bangladesh

Fringe benefits other than housing and rations include some allowances, attendance incentive, access to khet land for production of crop (those accessing such land have their rations slashed), medical care, provident fund, pension, etc.

The daily cash pay of a Bangladeshi tea worker is much lower than what a tea worker gets in Sri Lanka, which is around $4.5.

However, the cash pay of a tea worker in India is not a lot better than what the tea workers of Bangladesh have started to get from January 2015. Confined to the tea gardens, tea workers are considered to modern-day slaves by many, and are one of the most vulnerable peoples of Bangladesh. Into the fifth generation, they continue to remain socially excluded, low-paid, overwhelmingly illiterate, deprived and disconnected. They have also lost their original languages in most part, culture, history, education, knowledge and unity. Fearful of their future in an unknown country outside the tea gardens, the tea communities keep their voices down and stay content with the meagre amenities of life. As citizens of Bangladesh, they are free to live anywhere in the country. But the reality is that many of the members of the tea communities have never stepped out of the tea gardens.

An invisible chain keeps them tied to the tea gardens.

Social and economic exclusion, dispossession and the treatment they get from their managements and Bengali neighbours have rendered them ‘captive’ or ‘tied’ labourers. It is in this background that they deserve special attention of the state and the people of the majority community, not just equal treatment, which however, remains a far cry.

Philip Gain is researcher and director of Society for Environment and Human Development.

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