Tea workers at an estate in Srimangal area of Moulvibazar district, northeastern Bangladesh. Covid-19 has intensified the misery of thousands of low-paid and marginalized tea workers. (Photo: Stephan Uttom/UCA News)
Doyal Almik exhaled a sigh of relief when his employer resumed paying due wages earlier this month.
Almik, 29, works at Kaliti tea estate in Moulvibazar district of northeast Bangladesh. The estate, owned by Jobeda Tea Company, withheld February-April wages of 537 workers, citing financial troubles from loss of business.
“The poor workers faced a grim situation as they had no money to buy food while the coronavirus struck. Many starved and some ate liquid extracts from boiled rice mixed with smashed tea leaves and chili,” Almik, a Hindu father of two, told UCA News.
Normally, workers get their salaries every Thursday, but it was unpaid for more than 13 weeks, leaving workers in a miserable situation. Dozens resorted to hunger strikes several times.
“It’s inhuman that tea estate continued production but workers remained unpaid. The authority was supposed to provide masks, soap and sanitizer for protection, but did nothing. As if they don’t care whether workers live or die,” Almik said.
He said workers from nearby tea estates, a local government office and a voluntary group provided food aid to survive during the crisis.
A registered tea worker gets 102 taka (US$1.2) daily wage, the lowest in the world, and a minimal 3 kilograms of food rations (rice and wheat) and is allowed to stay in a thatched, mud-walled and overcrowded shanty with family, called ‘labor lines.’
However, things have changed for the better for Kaliti tea workers recently, as a local government official intervened to force the authorities to clear the arrears of workers and the process to lease out the estate to a new company has been finalized.
Pranab Kanti Das, manager of the estate, said the financial crisis of the company forced it to suspend salaries of workers and officials were also affected, adding that the problem has been solved amicably.
Conditions were even worse for 1,200 workers at Rema tea estate in neighboring Habiganj district.
The estate shut down on March 5 following a clash between workers and officials over a dispute regarding the 11-point demands of workers including two months of unpaid wages.
The shutdown forced the workers into severe conditions and dozens of workers fell sick due to starvation, forcing workers to hold protest rallies in front the estate and the factory.
The dispute was resolved and the estate reopened in May, but not all workers have been paid arrears yet, tea workers alleged.
“The workers need to be patient when the company faces a difficult situation. Strikes and work abstention cannot achieve anything good, so they need to cooperate,” said Monjur Rahman, the estate owner.
Covid-19 has exposed the vulnerability of poor and marginalized tea workers in Bangladesh, said Ponkoj Kondo, an ethnic Catholic and vice-president of the Bangladesh Tea Workers Union.
“Bangladesh was in lockdown for months, but tea estates never stopped as if they are immune from all kinds of diseases. Prices of daily essentials soared during this time and workers struggled to get by,” Kondo, 44, father of two, told UCA News.
There was 16 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and three deaths in tea estates, which might be largely under-reported, noted Kondo, a worker himself.
“There is no testing facility, so there is no data how many might be infected with the virus,” he said.
The trade union has been over the past months to press ahead with an overdue tripartite agreement for a daily wage rise of workers to be signed with the state-run Bangladesh Tea Board and the Bangladesh Tea Association (BTA), a consortium of tea estate owners.
“Usually, it is signed after every two years, but due to dilly-dallying from owners 18 months have passed already. Now, Covid-19 has become another cause of delay. We are under heavy pressure from workers for agreement and wage rise,” Kondo added.
Sylvester Tirkey, 36, an Oraon Catholic and worker at Kalachhera tea estate, demanded at least a two-fold wage rise.
“My wife and I work at the estate, but we face immense difficulty maintaining a family of seven. I think our daily wage should be 250-300 taka to allow us to have a better life,” Tirkey, a father of two, told UCA News.
Shah Alam, president of the BTA, was not available when contacted by phone several times.
The Church and tea workers
Bangladesh is the world’s ninth largest tea producer and China is on top, according to the London-based International Tea Committee.
There are about 98,000 registered workers and 30,000 seasonal workers in 167 tea estates. The total number of tea workers and their families is an estimated 700,000, according to trade union leaders.
Most tea workers are lower-caste Hindus and some are indigenous peoples, brought in by the British tea planters during British colonial rule in India. Due to their extreme poverty, lack of education and empowerment they are considered one of Bangladesh’s most marginalized communities.
Sylhet Catholic Diocese covers four districts in northeast Bangladesh including Sylhet, Moulvibazar and Habiganj — known as tea plantation hub of the country. About 12,000 Catholics out of a total 20,000 in the diocese are ethnic indigenous tea workers, mostly descendants of workers converted before their migration to present-day Bangladesh in the mid-19th century.
During the Covid-19 outbreak the diocese offered food aid and protective objects like masks and soap to about 500 workers in various tea estates, Church sources said.
The diocese is concerned about poverty and marginalization of Catholic tea workers, said Boniface Khonglah, secretary of the Justice and Peace Commission.
“Socio-economic development of tea workers in part of a 10-year strategic pastoral plan of the diocese. The Church runs schools and social organizations for tea workers, and also supports vocational training for children of tea workers,” Khonglah told UCA News in a recent interview.
Activists lament that the Church’s efforts for socio-economic empowerment have been inadequate.
“The conditions of non-Christian and Christian tea workers are not much different when we look into their education, economic empowerment, social development and land rights. They continue to be underdeveloped despite becoming Christians more than a century ago,” Pius Nanuar, a Kharia Catholic and rights activist, told UCA News.
“The Church needs to rethink how effectively it can execute the plan for the true development of tea workers,” he added.