Sunday, August 21, 2022

The Tea Slaves of Bangladesh

 Bangladesh is one of the world’s largest tea producers, exporting tea to more than 20 countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom and France. Nearly 150,000 people work at more than 200 Bangladeshi tea plantations, mostly located in the Sylhet region in northern Bangladesh.

But tea pickers, most of whom are female, work long hours and earn some of the lowest wages in the country. Most tea workers are low-caste Hindus, the descendants of labourers brought to the plantations by colonial-era British planters in the 19th century. They say little has changed for tea workers over the generations. Tea garden workers are among the lowest paid in the country.

Researchers say tea workers – who live in some of the country’s remotest areas – have been systematically exploited by the industry for decades. The United Nations says they are one of the most marginalised groups in the country, with limited access to basic facilities and education.

“Tea workers are like modern-day slaves,” said Philip Gain, director of the Society for Environment and Human Development research group. “The plantation owners have hijacked the minimum wage authorities and kept the wages some of the lowest in the world.”

The tea workers have been holding a strike for nearly two weeks to demand raise in daily wages amid rising inflation. They say the current daily wage – 120 taka (about $1.25) – was barely enough to buy food, let alone other necessities such as health and education. The workers’ union is demanding a 150 percent (300 taka or $3.15 a day) rise in their daily wages. 

“No tea worker will pluck tea leaves or work in the leaf processing plants as long as the authority doesn’t pay heed to our demands,” said Sitaram Bin, a committee member of the Bangladesh Tea Workers’ Union.

“Nowadays, we can’t even afford coarse rice for our family with this amount,” Anjana Bhuyian, a tea plucker, explained. “A wage of one day can’t buy a litre of edible oil. How can we then even think about our nutrition, medication, or children’s education?”

Thousands hit the streets after fuel prices were hiked by more than 50 percent two weeks ago.  Protesters blocked the Sylhet-Dhaka highway as they escalated the strike.

Luchee Kandu and her husband work on a plantation. 

“We hardly get any type of facilities, don’t have enough money for our children’s education, we barely get 3kg flour as ration once a week. Some days we don’t even get to eat, which is why we are protesting,” Kundu pointed out in Srimongal, known as Bangladesh’s tea capital.

Why are Bangladesh tea garden workers protesting? | Workers' Rights News | Al Jazeera

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