Tea workers continue striking under pressure

Muktadir Rashid . Sylhet

Government agencies are allegedly intimidating tea garden workers in Sylhet to call off their now four-month strike demanding a hike in minimum wage which is currently only Tk 69 per day.
Talking to New Age a number of workers alleged police and other vested parties have filed about 20 cases against several dozen demonstrating tea garden leaders, as they continued to enforce the strike in an A-class remote garden of Burjan tea estate in Khadimnagar, in the division headquarters, which began on July 1.
Demonstrating workers and their leaders are demanding Tk 300 minimum wage, though a group of leaders currently negotiating with the management have set the demand at Tk 120 per day.
Besides, the workers want proper implementation of the labour law and the appointment of an MBBS physician, gynecologist, trained nurse and ambulance in each garden.
They want the proposed minimum wage to contain a provision for revision, in line with inflation, every six months. They also demanded increase in all wage and non-wage benefits for seasonal workers.
‘How can we survive with a daily wage of Tk 69 at a time of inflation?’ asked 43-year-old worker Annoda Baraik of Kalagool tea garden during a visit last month.
In 2008, the wage was set at Tk 69 from Tk 30. While the strike is currently limited to the Kalagool tea garden, most tea garden workers and leaders are supporting the demands in general, though with some differences.
Makhon Lal Kormokar, president of Cha Sramik Union, recently said ‘what we get now is really measly. We want the government to intervene and provide a permanent solution to this issue.’
‘We demand maternity benefits for all female tea workers, committees to deal with sexual harassment at all gardens, free electricity, shades and toilet facilities, and pension benefits,’ he said.
He, however, told New Age that ‘the demand for Tk 300 daily is not really justified, rather Tk 120 daily would do.’
‘We will not sign any agreement until the owners agree to our demands,’ Makhon said, adding, ‘the owners have time till December 30 to decide.’
While the elected representatives of the trade union are in negotiations with the management, another trade union, Cha Sramik Sangha, rejected the minimum wage proposed by the former and backed the Kalagool workers to carry on with their strike.
Cha Sramik Sangha leaders argued tea workers in Sri Lanka earn 550 rupees per day (Tk 350 in BDT) while the daily wage for tea workers is more than Tk 300 in most neighbouring countries.
Sangha leaders claimed many of them had been interrogated and intimidated by the police, administration and intelligence agencies.
‘I was intensely interrogated by the intelligence agencies as I am not working with the government-backed trade union,’ alleged Mongal Chasha, the Cha Sramik Sangha Kalagool unit secretary.
A senior intelligence official, however, brushed aside the allegation of intimidation and claimed ‘we had only visited the tea garden since the workers were striking.’
The workers and officials of Burjan Tea Estates said about twenty cases were filed against protesting leaders of Sylhet’s Bangladesh Trade Union Sangha.
Only at the Kalagool tea garden, out of 166 tea gardens across the country, workers are still carrying on with the strike. At Kalagool, about 1,000 workers are currently either jobless or working in other gardens and selling wood for livelihood.
The government has taken a 12-Year Strategic Development Plan for the tea industry to enhance production, improve quality, increase export of tea and improve standard of living of tea workers. Bangladesh Tea Board has also set a target to raise production upto100 million kg by 2025.
‘How can the owners and management increase production without improve the lives of the workers?’ asked 45-year-old tea worker Fazr Ali.
Labour secretary Michail Shiper told New Age that the government is ‘concerned’ about situation of the tea workers, especially surrounding their habitat and other facilities.
On the allegation of intimidation, the secretary said ‘the rivalry is between tea workers and locals.’
Abdus Sabur Khan, the general manager of Burjan Tea Estates, admitted that the facilities need to be improved for the workers and that they were working to this end.
He urged the workers to ‘talk’ instead of strike.
‘We have lost Tk six crore since the strikes began,’ he claimed.
Bangladesh ranks 15th in global tea exports, selling two million kilograms annually.
The tea industry provides direct employment to about 133,000 people, 50 per cent of whom are women.  In addition, forward and backward linkage tea related activities engage about 500, 000 people.

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