Sushila Rajbhar has a family of nine —a husband, five children, and a father and mother-in-law. She and her husband earn a total of Tk240 a day, working at Khadimnagar Tea Garden in Sylhet. Amid the rising cost of living that has engulfed the country, they were failing to meet the bare minimum of family expenses, to the point of having to cut on essential food intake. Last week, she joined a countrywide strike by tea workers demanding higher daily wages of Tk300, up from Tk120.
"How am I supposed to survive on Tk120 a day? Where will I get the money for medicine, clothes, or the education expense of my children? Even Tk300 a day is hardly sufficient for that," Sushila said.
Over 200,000 workers, often dubbed 'modern-day slaves' by many, due to their unreasonably low wages at 166 tea plantations across the country, went on an indefinite strike last Saturday demanding a 150% increase in their daily pay. The strike comes when prices of basic food items have spiralled out of control and basic food has become a luxury for low-wage earners.
Tk20 hike proposal rejected
On Thursday, the protesting tea workers rejected a proposal from owners to hike the labourer's daily wages by Tk20 to Tk140, and announced to continue their strike.
The protesters blocked the Dhaka-Sylhet highway in Shaistaganj area at noon on the day, but left the area when the police came and asked them to leave. They also blocked the road in front of Nabinchandra School and Brahman Bazar Chowmohana in Kulaura.
Bijoy Hazra, organising secretary of tea workers union, said on Wednesday they attended a tripartite meeting with the government and the tea garden owners where the Tk20 wage hike was proposed.
"The tea workers said if necessary, they will go without food for a month, but not move away from their demand of Tk300 daily wage," said Bijoy.
The tripartite meeting at the Department of Labour in Dhaka was held under the mediation of the department's Director General Khaled Mamun Chowdhury.
"Are we not human?"
"Prices of all things are going up. There is so much development all around, but our wages do not improve. Are we not human?" Ratan Bauri, a protester, said venting his anger.
He went on, "We are alive, but our life is not human. Let alone my needs, I have never been able to fulfil any of my children's wishes. They have got used to this life as well and will become tea workers too."
Today, tea plantations have become one of the most productive sectors of the country. But the fate of tea workers remains unchanged with daily wages which researchers say are among the lowest in the world. That too depends on being able to pick a certain amount of tea leaves. There are no facilities such as sick leave or casual leave. The rule is simple – if you work the day, you get Tk120.
The irony of the low wage comes alive in the words of Ratan Hazra, another protester.
"We pick tea leaves. But we cannot afford to drink it. A cup of tea now costs nearly Tk10. It would be a luxury for us," he says.
Other facilities provided but…
The tea gardens are managed by owner-appointed managers who coordinate with workers. According to the managers, there are other facilities for the workers, including rice and flour rations, provision of educational expenses, accommodation, and a retirement allowance.
Abdul Jabbar, manager of Bahadurpur Tea Garden in Moulvibazar, owned by the Akiz Group, said a tea worker is given 3.5kg of rice per week as a ration. In total, four members of a worker's family can get the ration.
He said, "The garden authorities also arrange accommodations for workers. Their treatment and primary education of their children is also facilitated by the owners. They are provided food and water. Arrangements are also made to look after the children of the women workers. A retirement allowance is provided to older workers."
Besides, he added, that if a labourer picks more than 24kg of leaves in a day, they get an additional wage of Tk4 per kg on the extra pickings.
But according to workers, most gardens provide these facilities poorly and there is no connection between these and the daily wage.
Sanjay Mahali, a worker at the Kalagul Tea Estate in Sylhet, said although there is a primary school in the garden, there are not enough teachers. Most of the gardens run the schools with only one teacher and the authorities only bear the educational expense of primary education. Then it falls on the shoulders of the parents.
She also said there is a medical centre in the garden but it has no doctors. Nor is any medicine available there other than paracetamol.
Tea Workers Union's Sylhet Valley President, Raju Goala, said many tea gardens only provide workers with flour, but according to their job contract, a worker is supposed to get rice for six months and flour for another six months as rations.
Meanwhile, Tea Workers Union's Acting General Secretary Nipen Pal said, "Will a worker survive only on [the provided] rice? It is impossible to buy other essential foods with Tk120. How will workers afford education, medication or clothes?" he questioned.
Tk30cr loss a day
According to sources, the wage for tea workers is refixed every two years through a discussion between the Tea workers Union and the Bangladesh Tea Parliament, an organisation of tea garden owners.
The owners last set the daily wage for the workers at Tk120 in 2019, up Tk18 from the previous wage.
Tea Workers Union's Raju Goala said the organisation held multiple meetings with the owners about hiking the wage to Tk300 a day. But the efforts went in vain and now the workers went on the streets.
So far, the strike by tea workers is yet to bore any fruit.
But the protest is biting into the tea production.
According to Golam Mohammad Shibli, chairman of the Sylhet Division of Bangladeshi Tea Parliament, the ongoing strike is costing the tea gardens Tk30 crore per day.