Tea workers continue a strike demanding suspension of work at a tea estate in Moulvibazar district of Bangladesh on March 31. (Photo courtesy of Mintu Deshwara)
Thousands of tea workers in Bangladesh have started an indefinite strike demanding tea estate authorities suspend work to prevent a possible outbreak and spread of coronavirus.
About 34,000 permanent and temporary workers on 46 tea estates in Sylhet and Habiganj districts have abstained from work over the past three days, local media reported.
“Over the past few days we have appealed to the tea board and tea estate authorities to announce a holiday in tea estates for the safety of workers, but they didn’t pay heed to our call. The government has declared a nationwide general holiday to stop the spread of coronavirus, but the owners are negligent toward the safety of tea workers,” Pankaj Kanda, vice-president of the Bangladesh Tea Workers Union, told UCA News.
Kanda, an ethnic Kanda Catholic, predicted that as workers have declared the strike themselves, estate owners will take the opportunity to slash their already low wages.
“Tea workers earn too little and live in unsanitary and overcrowded houses. If the virus infects tea workers, it will be disastrous for the community,” he added.
Bangladesh has detected 54 cases of coronavirus infections and six people have died from Covid-19 disease so far, according to official government data.
The government has closed all education institutes until April 9 and ordered a nationwide holiday-cum-shutdown until April 5, which is likely to be extended by another week.
After several days of work abstention, some workers have returned to work fearing a salary cut, said Sumon Kumar Tanti, a Hindu and tea worker leader at Rajghat tea estate in Moulvibazar district.
“There was no measure on the part of the authorities to ensure the safety of workers from the virus — no masks, no sanitizer and no soap. Tea workers don’t have money to buy these things, and they cannot afford to have a salary cut due to absence from their workplace,” Tanti told UCA News.
As tea estates carry little risk of virus transmission, there is no possibility of a holiday, said Wahiduzzaman, manager of Mathiura tea estate in Moulvibazar district.
“We have been trying to make workers aware of the virus and offered them masks and soap to ensure their safety. We also asked them to work while maintaining a safe distance,” he told UCA News.
No holiday on tea estates during this crucial period is frustrating, said Oblate Bishop Bejoy D’Cruze of Sylhet Diocese, which covers the tea plantation districts of Sylhet, Habiganj and Moulvibazar.
“Almost all public and private organizations are on a general holiday and tea workers should not be left out. They are poor and low-income people, cannot have good food and cannot afford good housing. If the virus enters the estates, it will surely wreak havoc on the community,” Bishop D’Cruze told UCA News.
Some tea estates have restricted outward and inward movements of people but that cannot ensure the safety of workers, he said.
The Church has distributed masks and soap to workers on some estates and conducted awareness campaigns. “If we had better preparation, we could help them even more,” Bishop D’Cruze added.
Bangladesh has about 98,000 registered and 30,000 temporary workers on 166 tea estates. The entire tea worker community including families is estimated to be about 700,000.
Tea workers are mostly lower-caste Hindus and ethnic indigenous people whose ancestors migrated to Bangladesh when British tea companies started commercial tea plantations in the 1850s during the British colonial era in India.
A registered tea worker receives 102 taka (US$1.22) as a daily wage, the lowest in the world, and three kilograms of weekly food rations. They live in overcrowded and often unhygienic mud-walled and thatch-roofed houses called labor lines. Their extremely low income and discrimination make them one of most marginalized communities in Bangladesh.