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Bangladeshi tea workers trapped in eternal slavery

Often hailing from ethnic minorities, three-quarters of workers on the country's 161 tea estates live in extreme poverty

Published: June 23, 2021 03:16 AM GMT

Updated: June 23, 2021 07:51 AM GMT

Bangladeshi tea workers trapped in eternal slavery

A tea worker plucks leaves at a tea estate in Srimangal in northeast Bangladesh. The daily wage of tea workers is the lowest in the world. (Photo: Stephan Uttom/UCA News)

Malni Cherra tea estate, about five kilometers from Sylhet city in northern Bangladesh, is famous nationwide for its scenic beauty.

Established in 1854 during the British Raj in India, Malni Cherra is the country’s oldest tea plantation and employs about 600 workers.

Ironically, poor tea workers, who live in dilapidated shacks, are an absolute mismatch for the beautiful, leafy and lush green tea plants.

The story of Moni Biswas, a 35-year-old mother of three and a tea leaf picker on the estate, speaks volumes about the miseries of such workers.   

The fifth generation of tea workers from her family, Moni earns 120 taka (US$1.40) for a full day’s work that requires her to pluck 23 kilograms of tea leaves under the scorching sun in the rugged, hilly terrain.

Her husband is not a permanent worker, so he earns much less daily when work such as pruning tea plants, irrigation and spraying insecticide is available.

Our wages and rations are too low for survival. We often borrow money from neighbors when we need  

Altogether, the couple make about 1,500 taka ($18) per week and the family of five get a weekly ration of 3.5kg of rice at a subsidized price.   

“Our wages and rations are too low for survival. We often borrow money from neighbors when we need,” Moni, a Catholic and ethnic Mandraji, told UCA News.

They live in a one-room, mud-walled and thatched house in labor quarters locally known as the “labor line.” The couple have three daughters aged 21, nine and four, and the room has been partitioned with a bamboo fence for privacy.

Only registered workers are allowed to live in the quarters provided by the company and if a family have no permanent worker, the quarters must be vacated within two months.

“We don’t have land rights. Our income is too little and we cannot save anything. So, buying land is beyond our imagination. Sometimes we worry what will happen when we retire and our daughters don’t work in the garden,” Moni said.

Like Moni, some 74 percent of about 100,000 permanent and 30,000 casual workers on 161 tea estates live in extreme poverty, according to a 2018 study.  

The majority of the tea estates are in Sylhet, Moulvibazar and Habiganj districts of Sylhet division. The tea worker community is estimated to number 700,000.

Tea workers are mostly lower-caste Hindus and indigenous people from about 80 ethnic groups, according to a study by the Society for Environment and Human Development (SEHD).

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Their ancestors were brought in from various states of present-day India by British tea planters with the false promise of a better life. They were cut off from their roots after the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan.

The British planters who started tea plantations in India failed to convince local Bengali people to work in back-breaking jobs on tea estates.

However, they succeeded in persuading thousands of poor, low-caste communities from various regions to migrate and relocate to Sylhet region, part of current Assam state of India.

Most tea workers are lower-caste Hindus and indigenous people who migrated from Indian states during the colonial era. (Photo: Stephan Uttom/UCA News)

Impact of child marriage

Moni’s eldest daughter suffers from developmental disability, which is believed to be a result of her underage marriage at the age of 14.

Due to poverty and lack of education, child marriage is rampant and about 46 percent of girls on tea estates marry before they are 18, according to a UNICEF-sponsored study in 2019.

The study also revealed about 80 percent of women on tea estates give birth at home as midwifery services are unavailable. Some 55 of every 1,000 newborns die at birth, which is more than double the national average of 24 deaths.   

Moni was lucky to give birth to three children at home without any complications. “A few years back, a woman died in our colony while giving birth at home. Maybe she could have survived if taken to a hospital. The poor family couldn’t afford it, so she died,” she recalled.

The medical dispensary only provides paracetamol no matter what the medical problem is. In cases of emergency, workers need to travel 5km to the city for treatment, often borrowing money from neighbors.

Both Moni and her husband studied up to grade five at the government primary school on the estate. Tea companies don’t allow schools beyond grade five, fearing the next generation might quit the job if educated.

Moni’s disabled daughter never went to school; her nine-year-old second daughter studies in grade three and the youngest is yet to enrol.

“No matter how difficult it is, we want our two daughters to have an education and change their lives for the better. Our concern is they need to get education outside the estate. We will need more money to support them,” she said.

The poor family struggle to manage three meals a day. Their lunch and dinner mostly consist of rice, vegetables and lentils day after day.

“Only once a month we have meat and fish for two days. Sometimes we have eggs but cannot afford milk,” Moni said.

The mother buys two saris in the whole year and the family can afford new clothes only once, during Christmas.

When I was a child, I used to hear my parent speaking the Mandraji language, but I cannot speak and understand it as I didn’t practice as an adult

A 2016 survey by the SEHD found most small ethnic groups like the Mandraji are gradually losing their language and culture due to lack of practice and detachment from their roots.

“When I was a child, I used to hear my parent speaking the Mandraji language, but I cannot speak and understand it as I didn’t practice as an adult. My paternal uncle and aunt who are Hindus still speak the language,” she said.

Nonetheless, tea workers follow their religion and celebrate religious festivals. Both Hindus and Christians pray at worship places built either by employers or the workers.

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The worship of the Karam tree is the most popular religious festival for Hindu workers. During the festival they form colorful processions with songs, dance and music with traditional instruments.

Thanks to visits by Catholic priests and nuns to the estate, Moni and her husband became Christians about 10 years ago. They are devout Catholics but pray mostly at home and attend Mass when priests visit their colony occasionally. Sometimes, they go to the church in the city about 5km away.

Moni says tea workers live in slavery but cannot do anything about it. 'We have a trade union but it has not done enough to improve the lives of workers. We don’t know what is there in the labor law and there is no one to pull us out of this miserable life. Nobody cares or listens to our plight.'

Church efforts not enough 

The Catholic Church cannot do enough to change the situation.

“Priests and nuns visit us occasionally. During Christmas and Easter, we get rice and lentils, and warm clothes and blankets during winter,” she said.

The Church should help all children of tea workers get free education and accommodation so that they can get escape slavery and have a better life one day, Moni added.

Gopal Pashi, 55, a father of four, is a worker on the Luayini tea estate in the Kulaura area of Moulvibazar district. He earns a daily wage of 250 taka for two jobs — spraying insecticide on tea plants and grinding tea leaves in the factory.   

An ethnic Pashi and Hindu, Gopal’s 10-member family live in a two-room quarter. None of his four sons studied beyond grade five. They work as irregular daily wagers to support the family.

Parents want to educate their children but they are often helpless, he said.

“Children don’t study beyond grade five as we don't have money. If you want to send children outside school, you will have to pay 50/60 taka per day for the daily commute. There is also the cost of books, notebooks, pens, clothes. We cannot afford it,” Gopal told UCA News.

He expects one of his sons will replace him in the job once he retires and sees no future for the family beyond the tea estate.

“No father wants his sons and daughters to remain uneducated or to be servants of others. But here we have no choice other than to continue living like slaves to masters,” he lamented.

Gopal also complains about poor medical facilities on the estate, which provides only paracetamol. For better treatment, workers need to go the town, about a one-hour journey by bus.

“Some estates have a car for emergency patients, but most like ours don’t have one,” he said.

Most of about 500 workers on the estate are extremely poor like the Pashi family, who struggle to have two full meals a day.

“We have no savings. Buying land and building our own house outside are simply impossible,” Gopal said.

No protest can last long on tea estates. If we start a movement, the garden is shut down

Despite such deprivation, low salaries and long working hours, workers endure pain in silence and rarely resort to protests. During the Covid-19 pandemic, when a nationwide lockdown was enforced, tea estates continued to function. Workers on some tea estates protested, but their stance was in vain.

“No protest can last long on tea estates. If we start a movement, the garden is shut down. A movement cannot succeed when there is no work, no salary and no food,” Gopal said.

The vicious cycle on tea estates is too strong for tea workers to break, according to Pius Nanuar, a social activist and son of a tea worker.

“It requires enormous energy from inside and outside to break a system that has existed since the British period. Sadly, there is no such thing. Tea workers live an isolated life and no one from outside understands the environment inside,” he told UCA News.

Pius, 38, an ethnic Kharia Catholic, was born and grew up on Barma Chherra tea estate village in Srimangal of Moulviabzar district. He obtained a master's degree in English and became a development worker.

Bangladesh is often hailed for significant socioeconomic developments such as reductions in poverty and infant mortality as well as increased literary thanks to efforts by NGOs in the past decades. That has not been the case on tea estates.

Tea companies violate labor law

“About 30 NGOs are active on tea estates but cannot do anything significant. Some are involved in microcredit and workers take loans, plunging into debt. Some NGOs provide education but only up to grade five. NGOS are strongly discouraged from doing any rights-based work. Any violation would result in expulsion,” Pius explained.

“There is no external force to lobby on behalf of tea workers. The tragic truth is that no one loves poor people. Otherwise, someone should have come forward to liberate them instead of remaining in a comfort zone,” Pius added.

He also pointed out that tea companies allow cheap local alcohol brewing and consumption, which is a latent ploy to get workers drunk so that they forget about their exploitation and misery.

The daily wage of 120 taka of tea workers is the lowest in the world. Even a farm worker gets three to five times more in Bangladesh.

In Assam, India’s largest tea-producing state, workers now get 217 rupees ($3) as a daily wage. In Sri Lanka, the government recently agreed to a minimum daily wage of 700 rupees ($3.55) for tea workers, up from 500 rupees.

Even the low daily wage is slashed further for a provident fund, religious fund and membership fee of the sole trade union, Bangladesh Cha Shramik Union or Tea Plantation Workers Union (BCSU).

Labor leaders say that, including cash payments and fringe benefits such as free housing and medical, the pay stands at a maximum of 170 taka ($2) per day and 4,080 taka ($48) per month, which is lower than the minimum wage in all agricultural and industrial sectors in Bangladesh.

Traditionally, the wages of workers have been fixed through agreements between the BCSU and the Bangladesh Tea Association (BTA), the apex body of tea estate owners, every two years.

We have negotiated with the owners to raise the wage step by step from 29 taka to 120 taka today. It is still very low but we are trying our best

Prior to the latest agreement (2019-20), workers and labor leaders demanded a minimum daily wage of 300 taka, but they settled for a meager raise of 18 taka.

Tea companies continue to violate the 2006 labor law that seeks to ensure the rights of workers.

Workers are not entitled to casual leave. They get one earned day's leave for every 22 days of work, which is 18 working days in other industries.

Employers don’t issue appointment letters to workers and don’t pay a gratuity when they retire. Owners tend to keep casual workers longer as they are not entitled to rations, treatment and paid holidays.

The labor law also stipulates that workers are entitled to 5 percent of company profits that must be deposited in employees’ participatory fund and welfare fund. It has been never done.

Workers and activists blame the trade union for failing to secure a decent wage, other benefits and living conditions.

Founded in 1948, the BCSU is one of Bangladesh’s oldest and largest trade unions, representing more than 100,000 tea workers who pay a 15-taka monthly fee.

For more than 34 years until 2010, the union was led by a pro-owner group that mostly served the interests of owners in return for economic and non-economic benefits.

The old group refused to relinquish power with alleged backing from tea estate companies despite losing the election that year but later backed off.

'We have negotiated with the owners to raise the wage step by step from 29 taka to 120 taka today. It is still very low but we are trying our best. Unlike the past, workers can enjoy weekly and public holidays with pay. We have stopped the owners from reducing wages in the name of festival bonuses and dearness allowances,' Pankaj Kondo, an ethnic Kondo Catholic, told UCA News.

Exploitation of workers

Pankaj Kondo, vice-president of the union, claims the current reformist group has taken a series of initiatives for workers' welfare. 

Also, the trade union has been decentralized into seven zones and 231 units which are incorporated with a panchayat (village council) system to ensure the welfare of workers and address their problems quickly, he said, adding that there are reserved seats for women on village councils.

While blaming the master-slave mindset on tea estates and the government’s unilateral backing of tea companies, Pankaj admitted the limitations of the union itself.

“Tea workers are extremely poor while tea estate owners are immensely powerful financially and politically. Besides, we lack education, intellectual capacity and bargaining skills, unlike the owners,” he said.

He alleged that tea companies never reveal the actual figures of production and profits, giving them an upper hand during wage negotiations.

“Their main objective is to post maximum profits with minimum costs, which means exploitation of workers,” Pankaj added.

There is also a political monopoly on the tea estates as most tea workers vote for the ruling Awami League candidates during national elections, though elected MPs always take the side of owners and never raise their voices for workers.

Any attempt to change the scenario can trigger a heavy backlash.

With backing from some civil society groups, Pankaj Kondo contested the 2008 national election as an independent candidate. Tea estate owners aligned with mainstream political parties and used their clout to convince workers not to vote for their own man. As a result, Pankaj lost miserably and lost the pre-election security deposit.

The owners branded him as an enemy and fired him from his job on the tea estate. He was able to get his job back and return to the trade union on the condition of never engaging in politics in the future.

What tea workers get is as per the labor law and the agreement with the trade union

Bangladesh is the world’s ninth largest tea producer, according to the London-based International Tea Committee.

Once all tea estates were owned by British companies. Today, only two companies bear British legacies — Duncan Brothers and James Finley.

Finley only exists as a brand name, while Duncan, which owns 16 estates, still has British connections and investments. Most tea estates today are run by major industrial groups.

The country has seen a boom in production in recent times and in 2019 Bangladesh produced 90.6 million kilograms of tea, the highest in 166 years. The companies credited the rebound to new investments, extension of plantations and modernizing of machinery.

Despite hefty profits, workers in the tea industry continue to remain among the poorest and most marginalized communities.

UCA News approached owners and top management of 10 tea estates including Shah Alam, chairman of the Bangladesh Tea Association, for interviews. All of them declined to comment.

Big fish call the shots

Alam, managing director of Duncan Brothers, told UCA News in an earlier interview that tea workers get more than they deserve.

“What tea workers get is as per the labor law and the agreement with the trade union. If we combine pay and various benefits such as housing, rations and medical, the salary becomes double. On many estates, both husband and wife work, so their income is much more," he said.

Several officials from state-run Bangladesh Tea Board also declined to comment.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the manager of a tea estate said tea companies make profits regularly while workers are exploited.

“From my 25 years’ experience as a manager I can say tea companies never count losses. Even if sales drop, income is more than double. The actual figures don’t reflect in annual and audit reports, so the owners have strong arguments against the labor union during negotiations,” the manager told UCA News.

“Big fish [businesses] are involved who are always close to people in power and position in government, so the poor workers virtually have nothing to do against discrimination.” 

Deprived of a decent wage, land rights, education, health and so on, tea workers are the face of modern-day slavery  

About half of the 20,000 Catholics in Sylhet Diocese hail from ethnic groups on tea estates.

Largely due to the legacy of foreign missionaries during the British period, Catholic and Protestant churches still enjoy unfettered access to offer spiritual and pastoral care in tea estate villages with Christian populations.

Church authorities have maintained somewhat friendly relations with tea estate management to carry on their ministries.

Despite some efforts at socioeconomic development through alternative livelihoods by church groups such as Caritas, the conditions of most Christian workers remain similar to their Hindu neighbors.

Oblate Father Joseph Gomes, a parish priest and coordinator of the Oblate-run Justice, Peace and Integrity of Creation (JPIC), has been involved with the tea workers' movement and trade union for more than 15 years.

For various reasons including a funding crunch and rivalry in the trade union, Father Gomes has been less active in the field in recent years.

“Deprived of a decent wage, land rights, education, health and so on, tea workers are the face of modern-day slavery. They are like the black people enslaved by the whites centuries ago,” Father Gomes told UCA News.

While owners are largely to blame for the appalling condition of workers, the trade union is also responsible for failing them, the priest said. “The union has become more subservient to the owners and unable to protect the rights of workers.” 

Father Gomes has faced threats and denial of access to tea estates for his advocacy for tea workers. The JPIC used to get 40,000 taka ($471) monthly funding for the cause, but not anymore.

Education offers escape route

“It is difficult for the Church to find a leader or priest who can stand up to fight for the rights of tea workers like I did. At 64, I don’t have much energy to work as in the past and there is no funding,” Father Gomes said.

Despite the Church’s efforts in education, health and livelihood services, the clergy and religious tend to be in a “comfort zone” on the tea estates and choose to take the safe side.

“Everything on the tea estate is strictly controlled and you cannot do anything violating rules set by owners. Many things could be done by the Church, but restrictions cannot be challenged. This system must be broken to change the situation,” the priest said. 

Ratan Pashi, 32, is a Hindu and teacher at a government primary school in Luayni tea estate.

His parents have been tea workers but two out of six siblings managed to switch to different work.

“Two of my brothers become tea workers to keep the right to live in the quarters. My eldest brother and I got an education and found different jobs. Although it is difficult for parents to pay for education of children after grade five, they must do it to help the next generation have a better future,” Ratan told UCA News.

He lamented that most children on tea estates drop out even before completing grade 10 due to poverty and lack of schools in the locality.

Only 10 out 100 children complete high school. Most of them take up the job of their parents when they retire. A major reason is the mindset of workers who have lost the power to think about change due to a long time in slave-like conditions, he said.

“No matter how difficult it seems, I think education is the only way out of here. The biggest challenge is to transmit this vision to the workers,” he added.

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