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Trouble brews as Bangladesh is hit by tea workers' strike

Workers are thought to receive world's lowest wages

Trouble brews as Bangladesh is hit by tea workers' strike

Tea workers are among the most marginalized and disadvantaged groups in Bangladesh. reporter, Sylhet

May 22, 2013

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Around 100,000 tea workers in northeastern Bangladesh went on strike yesterday in a bid to pressure estate owners to double their wages, which rank among the lowest in the world.

The workers, from more than 150 tea estates in Sylhet, Moulvibazar and Habiganj districts, are also demanding the government establish schools for their children, as well as bolstering housing and land rights for workers. Daily wages for workers on the three tea estates are currently set at US $0.70.

“We placed the same demands back in September 2011 but the owners didn’t pay heed to us,” said Ram Bhajan Kairi, secretary of the Bangladesh Tea Workers’ Union, which called for the strike. “They didn’t even sit down and talk with the workers, so we have been compelled to go on strike."

Local media in Bangladesh has reported that government officials and owners have  been meeting with labor leaders twice since Tuesday, but have failed to reach agreement.

Bangladesh’s tea workers are mostly landless tribespeople brought in from various Indian states after the British set up the first tea gardens in the 1850s. They are among the most marginalized and disadvantaged groups, living in small, unsanitary mud-roofed houses where they are allowed stay as long as a family member is working.

A registered worker’s family gets only three kg of rationed rice and flour per week, and minimal medical care.

“I’m the only bread winner and it’s really tough to maintain my six-member family with little income,” said Asha Arnal, 35, a mother of four. “Nowadays, the price of daily essentials has increased so much that we can barely have a full square meal a day.”

She added that workers will struggle to survive without a wage hike.

Tea was once a major export of Bangladesh, but rapid population growth has led to a dramatic increase in domestic consumption. Of a total annual production of 50 million kg, only six million are exported.

Education and vocational training among tea workers is discouraged by plantation owners, who fear that workers will leave their jobs for better paid work.

Plantation owners have reacted strongly to the strike. “Workers have called for strike in a time when tealeaf picking season is set begin. It is hampering productivity and [causing] financial loss for tea estates,” said Shamsul Islam, manager of Patrokhola Tea Estate in Moulvibazar district. “If workers’ demands are met, owners will count huge losses and a financial crisis.”

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