Without any successful mainstreaming, tea workers, unlike other industrial workers, have remained marginalised with no visibility in national policies, discussants said on Wednesday.
At a programme titled "Why are the tea plantation workers left behind in Bangladesh?" organised by the Citizen's Platform for SDGs, Bangladesh at Brac Centre Inn in the city, they highlighted how tea workers are one of the most oppressed and vulnerable groups in Bangladesh.
The community is heavily underpaid and given few opportunities for advancement, alongside dealing with insufficient nutrition, poor healthcare and living conditions, they said.
Speaking at the event, Khairun Akhter, chairperson of Cha Konya Nari Songothon (Tea Daughter Women's Organisation), said the daily wage of Tk170 is nothing amid the ongoing inflation, especially as they had to pay a rent of Tk76.
"The Rohingya are living in a better condition than us," Khairun Akhter said.
Golam Mostafa, chief operating officer, Ispahani Group of Tea Estate, said they could not give the benefits the tea workers deserved, but added that their overall lifestyle had improved.
Centre for Policy Dialogue's Distinguished Fellow Debapriya Bhattacharya said from an economic perspective, if a person's key indicators lagged behind the national average, it could be said they, too, were lagging behind.
He said this was the case for the tea workers' community, which faced multidimensional poverty – an index that captures monetary poverty, education, and basic infrastructure services.
He said the workers were also lagging behind in terms of health and education, while being more prone to violence against women.
"This tea workers' community is not visible in the national policy. As they live out of the mainstream, they do not stay before like other industry workers such as RMG workers, jute workers," said Debapriya Bhattacharya, stressing the need for more focus on the community by government policies.
There is no effective programme for the modernisation of the tea industry as well as for strengthening the workers' and owners' relationship.
"We will have to work to make the tea workers' lives relevant and visible in the national policy and to ultimately empower the tea workers' community."
Socialist Labour Front's President Razequzzaman Ratan said the price of tea has increased, and the production has gone up, but the real wage remains the same.
International Labour Organisation's Country Director Tuomo Poutiainen said alongside the tea garden owners, the government will have to take initiatives to ensure that the tea workers get access to health, education and social protection.
The legal system, the rights of trade unions, the role of the owner and the government's position also came up in the discussion.
At the event, speakers said there must be a transformation in the oppressive mindset that pervades the tea industry towards its workers. The tea workers should be given a voice so they may articulate their concerns.
Dr Abdus Shahid, member of parliament, speaking as the chief guest, said they are working to improve the life of tea workers.
"If we cannot save the tea gardens, we will not be able to save the tea workers."
United Nations Resident Coordinator in Bangladesh Gwyn Lewis, and Tea Board Member Mohammed Nurullah Nuri also spoke as guests of honour at the event where lawmaker Hafiz Ahmed Majumder was a special guest.
United Nations Resident Coordinator in Bangladesh Gwyn Lewis said the work condition and wages of the tea garden workers needed to be improved.