The Story of Tea Workers

The Story of Tea Workers

Philip Gain looks at the struggle of the labourers in the tea gardens

Conditions  on the tea gardens were grim. In 1911 the Head of Government in Assam  spoke out against a labour system that, "treated its workers like  medieval serfs." Every few years new laws were drawn up in an attempt to  impose minimum standards to protect the labourers on the plantations  but these laws were largely ignored and unenforced, particularly as the  local magistrates were planters. Companies used beatings, fines and  imprisonment to keep their workers in line. Under British imperial laws  trade unions were forbidden on the estates. Organisers who attempted to  contact tea pickers were seen as trouble makers and accused of trespass.                 --British writer Dan Jones, 1986.              "The  tea gardens are managed like an extreme hierarchy: the managers live  like gods, distant, unapproachable, and incomprehensible. Some even  begin to believe that they are gods, that they can do exactly what they  like." -- Francis Rolt, British journalist, 1991.
                                                   "Managers  have anything up to a dozen labourers as their personal, domestic  servants. They are made to tie the managers shoe laces to remind them  that they are under managerial control and that they are bound to do  whatever they are asked." --British writer Dan Jones, 1986.

Tea,  the second most popular beverage in the world (the first is water), is  believed to have first been popularised in China. For thousands of years  the Chinese farmers had the monopoly of cultivating tea. Its  cultivation in the tropical and subtropical areas is a recent  phenomenon.

Tea plantation in India's Assam dates back  to 1839. The first experimental tea garden in our parts was established  in Chittagong in 1840 and the first commercial-scale tea garden in  Bangladesh was established in 1854. Since then the tea industry has been  through quite a few historical upheavals -- notable among them are the  Partition of India in 1947 and the Independence War in 1971. Through  these historical changes, the ownership of tea gardens established by  the British companies on the abundantly available forest or government  land has changed hands.

Right now Bangladesh has 163 tea gardens  (including seven in Panchagarh where tea cultivation started only  recently) with 36 of them considered "sick." One unique feature of the  tea industry is that the entire land mass (115,000 ha excluding  Panchagarh) granted for production of tea is government land. It is also  for the colonial legacy that our tea gardens are huge in size and the  management administer the gardens with the air of British Shahib and  Zamindars. The use of grant areas for tea with 45% actually used for  production of tea is another key concern. Land granted for tea  cultivation but used for other commercial purposes is deemed unjust and  an incentive for social injustice perpetrated on the tea plantation

                     PHILIP GAIN


The  most striking fact about tea production in Bangladesh is that after the  partition of India most of the tea produced here used to be consumed by  West Pakistan. After Independence, Pakistan remains to be the largest  importer of Bangladeshi tea. However, now it is we who consume most of  the tea that we produce. In 2007 Bangladesh produced 57.9 million kgs of  tea of which only 10.6 million kgs were exported [82% of which was  taken by Pakistan]. There is an apprehension that if the production of  tea does not increase significantly and if domestic consumption  continues to grow fast, Bangladesh will soon become an importer of tea.  The bottom line is tea is no more an important export commodity and  Bangladesh plays no significant role in the global tea trade although it  ranked 10th among the tea-producing countries in 2007.

In the discussion on tea, its production,  consumption and trade those who remain least attended are the tea  plantation workers. The tea industry is very different from other  industries. The production process of tea involves agriculture and  industry. What is unique about labour distribution in these two areas is  that the maximum of the labour force is engaged in agriculture -- the  tea gardens or the field. The labour force that keeps the tea industry  alive is not local. The British companies brought them from Bihar,  Madras, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Uttar  Pradesh and other places in India to work in the tea gardens in the  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  condition. Upon arrival to the tea gardens these laborers got a new  identity, coolie and were turned into 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 "labour lines" that they built themselves.

When they came first, they got into  four-year contracts with the companies. That was the beginning of their  servitude. More than a century and half or four generations have passed  since the tea plantation workers settled in the labour lines. Their  lives and livelihoods remain tied to the labour lines ever since. They  are people without choice and entitlement to property. In addition to  the wages, which is miserably low, they get some fringe benefits. The  houses in the labour lines are given by the employer that comes first on  the list of fringe benefits. One worker gets one house that is supposed  to be maintained by the employer. However, generally the workers  themselves do the repair and maintenance. Living conditions in houses in  the labour lines are generally unsatisfactory and outrageous in many  instances. Typically a single room [in the line house] is crowded with  people of different ages of a family. Cattle and human beings are often  seen living together in the same house or room. Some families try to  construct an extra house or room for which they have to take permission  from the management.

The wages -- daily or monthly -- is the  single most concern. The maximum daily cash pay for the daily rated  worker in 2008 was Taka 32.50 (less than half a US$). This is a  miserable pay having a severe effect on the daily lives of the tea  workers. Although the workers get rations at a concession, a family can  hardly have decent food items on their plate. They indeed have very poor  quality and protein-deficient meals. Their physical appearance tells of  their malnourishment. Bangladesh Cha Sramik Union (BCSU) that  represents the workers and Bangladesh Tea Association (BTA) that  represents the employers sign a memorandum of agreement every two years  to fix the wages. The last memorandum of agreement went into effect on 1  September 2005. The two-year period of effectiveness of the agreement  ended on 31 August 2007 [during the state of emergency in the country].  It was due to the state of emergency and squabbles between rival groups  in Bangladesh Cha Sramik Union that no agreement between the two parties  was signed in due time. However, in the absence of any agreement, the  owners increased wages by Taka 2.5 as an interim arrangement. What is  important to note here is that BCSU in its charter of demands placed to  the owners have demanded increase of wages by up to 100%, but the owners  increased it by Taka 2 every two years, which the BCSU accepted in the  end. The newly elected leadership (in 2008) of the BCSU, in its charter  of demands of 2009, demanded that the cash pay of the daily rated  workers be increased to Tk.90.00 from Tk.32.50. It is yet to be seen how  the employers respond to the demands of BCSU.

Fringe benefits other than houses include  some allowances, attendance incentive, rations, access to khet land for  production of crop (those accessing such land have their rations  slashed), medical care, provident fund, pension, etc. BTA calculates the  cumulative total daily wage of a worker at Tk.73. The newly elected  leaders in BCSU have a different calculation, which is lower than that  of BTA.

For  a long time, The Tea Plantations Labour Ordinance, 1962 and The Tea  Plantation Labour Rules, 1977 defined the welfare measures of the tea  plantation workers among other things. In 2006 these laws along with  other labour related laws (25 in total) were annulled and a new labour  law, Bangladesh Labour Act 2006, was introduced. The tea plantation  workers were brought under this Act. The new Act has fixed the minimum  wages of industrial workers at Tk. 1,500 (US$22). The tea plantation  workers, who got lower wages in cash than this minimum wages, raised  their voices for an increased cash pay. They were turned down. In a  letter dated 20 July 2008 the Deputy Director of Labour, Tea-industry  Labour Welfare Department in Srimangal, Maulvibazar announced, "the  minimum wages announced in the gazette was not for the workers in the  tea gardens." The letter also mentioned that "the government has already  formed a separate wage board to determine the wages for the tea workers  and the issue of minimum wages is under consideration." It is yet to be  seen how the wage board makes progress in its work.

If compared with wages of the Indian tea  workers, the wages of Bangladeshi tea plantation workers is much lower.  In Darjeeling, Terai and Doars of West Bengal in India the daily wages  of a tea plantation worker was Rs.53.90 in 2008. The wages, increased in  three steps, will reportedly become Rs.67 in 2011. Strong labor  movements have been instrumental in such wage increase. In West Bengal  about 400,000 workers will get this increased wages. Compared to the  Bangladeshi tea plantation workers, the Indian workers also get a better  deal in accessing fringe benefits such as rations, medical care,  housing, education, provident fund benefits, bonus, and gratuity. What  puzzles one is that the auction of prices of tea in Bangladesh is high  compared to the international auction prices while its production cost  is comparatively lower than other tea producing countries (India, Sri  Lanka and Kenya for example). Of course the productivity of tea per unit  in Bangladesh is lower compared to those countries. Many believe that  there is no justification for low wages of the tea plantation workers in  Bangladesh. They deserve much higher wages.

The work condition of the tea workers who  spend most of their working time under the scorching sun or getting  soaked in rains is a concern. A woman tealeaf picker spends almost all  her working hours for 30 to 35 years standing before she retires. The  working hours for the tealeaf pickers, mostly women, are usually from 8  AM to 5 PM [7-8 hours excluding break for lunch] from Monday to  Saturday. Sunday is the weekly holiday. To earn some extra cash, the  extra work brings additional grief.

           PHILIP GAIN

Education, an important ladder for  transformation of a community or society for betterment is at the root  of the social exclusion of the tea workers. There are schools in the tea  gardens. According to the Bangladesh Tea Board (2004), in 156 tea  gardens (excluding those in Panchagarh) there were 188 primary schools  with 366 teachers and 25,966 students. Given that the employers provide  education, the government schools in the tea gardens are just a few. In  the recent times, the NGOs run significant number of primary schools.  The quality of education provided in these schools remains to be a  concern. An overwhelming majority of the children of the tea plantation  workers drop out from school before they can use education to step into  other professions and thus they have to enter the tea gardens as  laborers.

The tea communities are one of the most  vulnerable people of Bangladesh. They deserve special attention of the  State, not just equal treatment. But unfortunately they continue to  remain socially excluded, low-paid, overwhel-mingly illiterate, deprived  and disconnected. They have also lost their original languages in most  part, culture, history, education, knowledge and unity. In the labour  lines of a tea estate, they seem to be living in islands -- isolated  from the majority Bangali community who sometimes treat them as  untouchables. Without fertilisation of minds, they have lost dignity in  their lives. These are perfect conditions for the profiteers from the  tea industry to continue exploitation of the tea workers. Deprived,  exploited and alienated, the majority of the tea workers live an inhuman  life.

The key questions to ponder: How longer  will the tea communities stay confined to the labour lines? Will they  continue to live as people without choice and entitlement to a land they  have tilled for four generations? The employers probably want the  status quo maintained for a steady supply of cheap labourers. But the  tea communities, little more conscious now than before, want justice  done to them. They want strategic services from the State and NGOs in  the areas of education, nutrition and health, food security, water and  sanitation, etc. They also want to see their languages, culture, and  social identity protected.

           PHILIP GAIN

Fearful of their future in an unknown  country outside the tea gardens, the tea communities keep their voices  down and stay content with meager 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 management and Bangali neighbours have  rendered them to become captive labourers.

The government is showing the country a  dream of a digital Bangladesh and changes in the lives of poor, marginal  and Adivasi people. The tea plantation workers are not just poor, they  are a particularly deprived marginal community in captive situation.  They have limited scope to integrate with the people of the majority  community and they face great difficulties in exploring livelihood  options outside the tea gardens. The tea plantation workers want the  State to address to address their case with care and translate its  commitment to them providing political and human protection.

Philip Gain is the Director of Society for Environment and Human Development (SEHD).

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