It is very commendable that the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, Sheikh Hasina, has said in a virtual exchange meeting Saturday afternoon that, "Bangabandhu provided the tea workers rights to vote, citizenship, and it cannot be that they remain landless. I will definitely provide them the land rights."
If she delivers on this promise, this would be a great development in the fight for the rights of the nearly 150,000 people working at more than 200 Bangladeshi tea plantations, mostly located in the Sylhet region in northern Bangladesh.
This is the first of any such promise from a head-of-the-state in Bangladesh and any such declaration has even not been made by any Indian premier, where tea workers' rights are also a big issue. As such, this can rightly be understood as a watershed moment.
Immediately before this declaration, in the face of a strong movement from the tea workers for Tk300 per day wages, the Prime Minister set the new wage rate for tea workers at Tk170 per day. This wage, however, is still too small for the workers to survive on, or to build any kind of future. However, it is also a step forward in their fight for fair wages.
I visited the tea garden workers at the Chanpur tea gardens in the Habiganj area during a worker-led Women's Day event on March 8, 2020. I walked through rows of houses of the workers that were in extreme disrepair. Although the owners are supposed to do the upkeep, I saw the workers were the ones who were bearing the burden.
I was invited to the house of one tea worker who was also a rights activist for the workers. Ten to fifteen people were living in one congested house.The workers, often female, came back home from 10-12 hours of backbreaking work and yet could not afford a nutritious diet.
Whenever the issue of meagre wages is brought up, the owners of tea gardens repeatedly bring up the benefits provided to the workers. However, Mohan Rabidas, son of a tea worker family and a Dhaka University graduate says, "All the talk about the benefits is just a farce.'
"In our local tea garden school, there is only one teacher for five classes. What education do you expect out of that? The only medicine available to us is paracetamol for every ailment and even that too is sometimes date-expired."
According to Mohan, tea workers are often cheated out of their retirement funds by being tricked into voluntary retirement, a loophole through which the owners can avoid giving the workers benefits.
"They deduct Tk77 as house rent on the houses that we have built with our hands. Can you believe such a thing?"
These practices may end if the Prime Minister intervenes and delivers on her promise of giving the workers land rights, and access to better healthcare, education, and labour rights.
Why right to land is vital
Tea workers were originally brought to the Sylhet region of Bangladesh by the British colonists through the use of deception and force in the 19th century. People from mostly the disadvantaged lower caste tribal Hindu class were targeted to be brought to the tea gardens of Assam and Bengal.
The land they were given to live on was never theirs. It was registered as the land of the company. For hundreds of years, the ownership of the land changed, but never in the favour of the tea workers.
Later, even as the political movements for reforms grew with the rise of Sher-e-Bangla A.K. Fazlul Haq, the tea workers were deprived of the rights to their land. Even though the State Acquisition & Tenancy Act of 1950 repealed the Zamindari system in Bengal, the feudal system of the tea gardens remained in place where the tenants of the land did not become the owners and the ownership of the company remained intact, because of the isolation and the lack of knowledge that prevailed at the tea gardens at that time.
The current arrangement means that tea workers are bonded to their land, as access to their living quarters are dependent upon their work at the tea gardens. This means that they simply cannot afford to leave their job.
While the rest of Bangladesh gradually transitioned from agriculture to manufacturing, the people from the tea gardens could not afford to move out of the tea gardens to those better and higher paying jobs elsewhere, as leaving their job meant leaving their land, and thus losing almost all of the little property of value that they cling on to.
With access to land rights as per the Prime Minister's promise, a worker can legally challenge someone, be it a tea garden authority figure or an influential leader, if they try to impinge upon their property rights.
They will get relief from other problems too, such as facing complications in getting government jobs or filing a police case, because they require one to list a parental home address.
Their labour rights need to addressed
The Prime Minister has also promised improvement in the education of the tea workers' children through nationalisation of the schools through the Ministry of Education and improving their healthcare situation by setting up community clinics in every garden. She also said that she would take steps to make the workers' demand for six months maternity leave a reality.
With access to these basic human rights are absolutely necessary, their rights as workers must also be protected under our labour laws. It is noteworthy that the Labour Law of 2006 (amended in 2013) only makes a passing remark about the tea workers, but does not fully accept them as workers, which deprives them of various means of airing their grievances at the subnational level.
The tea workers should be given the right to collectively bargain at the subnational level as well.
Researcher Jawad Ahmed, who did his honours thesis on the tea worker community, said that the current wage bargaining system has become corrupt. The Bangladesh Cha Sramik Union (BCSU), the lone union of 150,000 tea plantation workers, is not very well liked among their peers, according to media reports.
"They are all considered dalals (collaborators). They want to gain some sort of advantage from the companies for themselves and do not care about the welfare of the general workers."
Economist Anu Muhammad said that no real union process exists on the ground. "The only ones that exist are controlled by the owners. They are not built from the bottom-up."
The welcome comments of the Prime Minister are a direct result of the movement that was possible because of the solidarity the tea workers have built and shown in this movement, which was remarkable and will outlive these protests.
Even though they have agreed to a wage of Tk170 for now, they may soon demand more if promises are not kept.
The promises made about giving land rights, improving education and healthcare, and ameliorating the working conditions need to be delivered soon so that tea workers and their future generations can exercise their rights as a citizen, enjoyed by all other Bangladeshis.
Anupam Debashis Roy is an independent writer and researcher