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Bangladeshi tea workers trapped in eternal slavery

Often hailing from ethnic minorities, the majority of workers on the country's 167 tea estates live in extreme poverty

Published: June 23, 2021 03:16 AM GMT

Updated: August 07, 2021 12:22 PM 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)

Malnicherra tea estate, about five kilometers from Sylhet city in northeastern Bangladesh, is famous nationwide for its scenic beauty.

Established in 1854 during the British Raj in India, Malnicherra is the country’s oldest tea plantation. It currently employs 1,200 registered and 400 casual workers, according to the estate’s manager, Sohel Ahmed.

The 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 said she 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 food ration of some six kilogram of rice and flour 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.

Moni’s husband and their three daughters live in a one-room, mud-walled and thatched house in labor quarters, locally known as the “labor line.” Their elder daughter is 21, younger ones are nine and four, and the room has been partitioned with a bamboo fence for privacy.

Even such shanties are not permanent. Only registered workers are allowed to live in them, and if a family has no permanent worker, the quarters must be vacated within two months, stipulates Bangladesh Labor Act, enacted in 2006.

However, cases of eviction following retirement of a worker is rare as grown up members would take up work in the estate, workers said.

“We don’t have land rights. Our income is too little and we cannot save anything. 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.

Bangladesh’s 167 tea estates together employ some 100,000 permanent and 30,000 casual workers, says Ponkoj Kondo, vice-president of Bangladesh Tea Workers Union (BCSU).

About 74 percent tea workers live in poverty, according a 2018 study by state-run Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS). The rate is much higher than national poverty rate of 21.8 reported by the BBS in the same year. 

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Most tea estates are in northeastern districts of Sylhet, Moulvibazar and Habiganj. At least 24 them are also in southeast Chittagong district. The tea workers’ community was about 472,125, according to Statistical Handbook of Bangladesh Tea Board 2019.

Most tea workers are lower-caste Hindus and indigenous people from about 80 ethnic groups, says Philip Gain, a researcher and rights activist, who spent decades working for tea workers.

The British planters persuaded thousands of poor from low-caste communities from various regions of present day India to migrate and relocate to Sylhet area, then part of British India’s Assam region.

Following 1947 partition of India and creation of Pakistan, these workers were cut off from their roots in India, and eventually became citizens of Bangladesh.

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

Lack of education, poverty

Moni’s eldest daughter, who suffers from developmental disability, never went to a school.

Moni studied up to grade five, but was married off at the age of 14 following the social system in the tea gardens.

In fact, poverty and lack of education drive 46 percent of girls on tea estates to 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 no medical facilities are available in their areas. Some 55 of every 1,000 babies die at birth, which is more than double the national average of 24 deaths.  

Moni said she was lucky to give birth to her children at home without any complications.

“A few years back, a woman died in our colony while giving birth at home. The poor family couldn’t afford to take her to a hospital,” Moni recalled.

The estate’s medical dispensary only provides first-aids. In cases of emergency, workers need to travel five kilometers to the city hospital, often borrowing money from neighbors, workers say.

Moni’s husband also studied only up to fifth grade 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 nine-year-old second daughter studies in grade three and the youngest is yet to enroll.

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

The poor family hardly have enough food. Their daily lunch and dinner mostly consist of rice, vegetables and lentils.

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

The family can afford new clothes only once, during Christmas, the mother said.

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
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Ethnic communities like Moni’s also gradually losing their language and culture due to lack of practice and detachment from their roots, said Gain.

Gain noted that 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 never used it. 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.

For overwhelmingly Hindu tea workers Durga Puja and Holi are the most popular religious festivals. Workers enjoy three-day holiday during Durga Puja festival, Gain said.

Ethnic groups such as Santal, Oraon and Munda, who largely follow animism, celebrate their Karam festival with colorful processions with songs, dance and music with traditional instruments.

Moni and her husband became Christians about 10 years ago. They said they pray mostly at home and attend Mass when priests visit their colony occasionally. Sometimes, they also go to the church in the city, which is five kilometers away.

She regrets that no one made any serious efforts to “free tea workers from their slavery.”

“We have a trade union but it has not done enough. We don’t know what our rights are according to labor law, and there is no one to pull us out of this miserable life. Nobody cares or listens to our plight,” she said.

Moni Biswas regrets no one made any serious efforts to “free tea workers from their slavery.”

Church efforts not enough

The Catholic Church has been active in tea estates for decades, but cannot do enough to change the situation, Moni said.

“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 so that they can escape slavery and have a better life one day, Moni pleaded.

The plea for education is louder in the estates.

“Parents want to educate their children but they are often helpless,” said 55-year-old Gopal Pashi, a father of four.

Gopal, a Hindu and ethnic Pashi, works with Luayuni-Holicherra Tea Estate in Moulvibazar district and earns a daily wage of 250 taka for two jobs — spraying insecticide on tea plants and grinding tea leaves in the factory.  

None of his four sons studied beyond grade five. They work as day laborers to support the family.  He expects one of his sons to replace him in the job once he retires. But sees no future for the family beyond the tea estate.

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

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

No right to protest

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 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, who grew up on Barma Chherra tea estate in Moulviabzar district obtained a master's degree in English and became a development worker thanks to support from local St. Joseph Church. 

Majority of the tea workers live in extreme poverty

 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,” Pius added.

The daily wage of 120 taka (US$ 1.5) 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 in Bangladesh is slashed further for a provident fund, religious fund and membership fee of the sole trade union, Bangladesh Tea Workers Union (BCSU).

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 5,100 taka ($60) per month, Rambhajan Kairi, the BCSU general secretary, was quoted by Philip Gain in his opinion column published in Bangladesh’s The Daily Star newspaper on Sept. 9, 2020. 

Prior to the latest agreement (2019-20), workers and labor leaders demanded a minimum daily wage of 300 Taka, but they settled for 120 Taka (US$ 1.5).

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

Workers say 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.

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 the only trade union for tea workers in Bangladesh, 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, said Ponkoj Kondo, vice-president of BCSU. They refused to relinquish power with the backing from tea estate companies, despite losing the election but later backed off.

A master-slave mentality exists in the tea industry, activists say

Fudging profit-loss records

Kondo claimed the current leadership of the union has taken a series of initiatives for workers' welfare.

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

Kondo admitted that the union has limitations but blamed it on the master-slave mindset existing in the estates and the government’s backing of tea companies.

“Tea workers are extremely poor. But 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 fudge profit and loss records to hiking production costs, giving them an upper hand during wage negotiations.

“Their main objective is to gain maximum profits with minimum costs, which means exploitation of workers,” Kondo 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, Kondo said.

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. Currently there are only four British-owned companies. Major industrial groups run 68 tea estates, while 53 estates are under proprietorship, Gain said referring to data from Bangladesh Tea Board.

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 production boom, workers continue to remain poor and marginalized.

Tea estate owners claim the workers get more than they deserve

Big fish call the shots

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.

Shah Alam, also managing director of tea company Duncan Brothers (Bangladesh) Limited, 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 fishes [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  

Education offers escape route

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

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.

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 for more than 15 years.

“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.

Father Gomes says he has faced threats and denial of access to tea estates for his advocacy for tea workers.

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.”

“It is difficult for the Church to find a leader or priest who can stand up to fight for the rights of tea workers. At 64, I don’t have the energy or the funding,” Father Gomes said.

“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 Luayuni-Holicherra tea estate.

His parents have been tea workers but two out of six siblings managed to move out to do other works.

“Two of my brothers become tea workers to keep the right to live in the quarters. But my eldest brother and myself were educated and found other 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.

Children from tea gardens drop out even before completing grade 10 and lack of adequate schools, he said.

“Only 10 out 100 children complete high school. Most drop out because of poverty and to take up their parents’ job to retain the right to quarters. People have lost the power to think about change due to a long time in slave-like conditions,” he said.

* The article has been revised for factual correctness and to add additional quotes since its publication on June 23, 2021

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