UCA News

Bangladesh

Bangladesh tea workers strike for coronavirus leave

Marginalized and poorly paid tea pickers want estates to fall in line with a nationwide general holiday

Support Asia's largest network of Catholic journalists and editors
Support Asia's largest network of Catholic journalists and editors
Bangladesh tea workers strike for coronavirus leave

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)

Share this article :
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.

Support UCA News...

As 2020 unfolds, we are asking readers like you to help us keep Union of Catholic Asian News (UCA News) free so it can be accessed from anywhere in the world at no cost.

That has been our policy for years and was made possible by donations from European Catholic funding agencies. However, like the Church in Europe, these agencies are in decline and the immediate and urgent claims on their funds for humanitarian emergencies in Africa and parts of Asia mean there is much less to distribute than there was even a decade ago.

Forty years ago, when UCA News was founded, Asia was a very different place - many poor and underdeveloped countries with large populations to feed, political instability and economies too often poised on the edge of collapse. Today, Asia is the economic engine room of the world and funding agencies quite rightly look to UCA News to do more to fund itself.

UCA News has a unique product developed from a view of the world and the Church through informed Catholic eyes. Our journalistic standards are as high as any in the quality press; our focus is particularly on a fast-growing part of the world - Asia - where, in some countries the Church is growing faster than pastoral resources can respond to - South Korea, Vietnam and India to name just three.

And UCA News has the advantage of having in its ranks local reporters that cover 22 countries and experienced native English-speaking editors to render stories that are informative, informed and perceptive.

We report from the ground where other news services simply can't or won't go. We report the stories of local people and their experiences in a way that Western news outlets simply don't have the resources to reach. And we report on the emerging life of new Churches in old lands where being a Catholic can at times be very dangerous.

With dwindling support from funding partners in Europe and the USA, we need to call on the support of those who benefit from our work.

Click here to find out the ways you can support UCA News. You can make a difference for as little as US$5...
UCAN Donate
YOUR DAILY
NEWSLETTER
Thank you. You are now signed up to our Daily Full Bulletin newsletter
 
Support UCA News

William J. Grimm, MM

Publisher

Union of Catholic Asian News

"As Pope Francis has said, we live not so much in an era of change as in a change of era. That is especially true in Asia and for the churches of Asia. UCA News is the dedicated, Asia-wide news and information service for the Church in Asia and we need your help to maintain the service."