A LIFE with dignity remains a far cry for tea-garden workers. During the British colonial period, they were brought to Sylhet to work as day labourers, but treated as mere slaves. In the independent Bangladesh, successive governments have showed little interest in changing their lives. At least 1.22 lakh workers in 229 tea gardens of the country are among the lowest paid monthly wage workers. A Transparency International, Bangladesh report shows that 90.6 per cent of the workers’ families still share a single room with domestic animals. They do not have proper access to safe water, electricity or health care. The research also finds that 11.6 per cent of permanent workers were left out of the provident-fund facility while only 7 out of the 64 gardens had daycare centres for workers’ children. Transparency International has said that this is nothing but a new form of slavery.
Tea workers do not have a wage board overseeing the wage negotiations and a contract is used to decide the minimum wage. In 2017, on the expiry of contracts, the Tea Workers’ Federation demanded their minimum daily wage of Tk 230, up from Tk 85. But their wage was set at Tk 3,060 a month. The Bangladesh Tea Association, however, argues that garden owners give employee benefits that supplement the wages. Rights activists term this benefit system a ploy to exploit workers. Food ration is provided for the worker’s wife and children only up to 12 years of age. If the tea picker is female, which is mostly the case, the husband is not given a rice ration as he is not considered a dependant. If workers miss a day of work, they lose a kilogram of rice ration.
The government, therefore, must take initiatives to protect the rights of tea workers. In doing so, it must scrap the colonial regime that shields garden owners and allow them to exploit workers. The labour law must be revisited to ensure that tea workers have the right to negotiate their minimum wage and minimum wage board should be formed to regularly review wages for tea workers.
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