Why are Bangladesh tea garden workers protesting?

Nearly 150,000 tea garden workers, who are among the lowest paid in the country, demand a rise in daily wage by 150 percent.

Tea garden workers gather to take part in a protest demanding hike in their daily wages.
The union has rejected the government's latest offer of a 25 cents per day wage increase [Mamun Hossain/AFP]

Bangladesh tea workers have been holding a strike for nearly two weeks to demand raise in daily wages amid rising inflation.

They say the current daily wage – 120 taka (about $1.25) – was barely enough to buy food, let alone other necessities such as health and education.

“Nowadays, we can’t even afford coarse rice for our family with this amount,” Anjana Bhuyian, a tea plucker, told the AFP news agency.

“A wage of one day can’t buy a litre of edible oil. How can we then even think about our nutrition, medication, or children’s education?” the 50-year-old said.

The strikes by the tea workers have become a rallying point for many in the nation of 160 million people, as rising inflation and high food prices add to the wider frustration about low wages.

Thousands hit the streets after fuel prices were hiked by more than 50 percent two weeks ago.

On Sunday, the protesters blocked the Sylhet-Dhaka highway as they escalated the strike.

What are they demanding?

The workers’ union is demanding a 150 percent (300 taka or $3.15 a day) rise in their daily wages. Tea garden workers are among the lowest paid in the country.

“Nearly 150,000 tea workers have joined the strike today,” said Sitaram Bin, a committee member of the Bangladesh Tea Workers’ Union, on August 13.

“No tea worker will pluck tea leaves or work in the leaf processing plants as long as the authority doesn’t pay heed to our demands,” he told AFP.

The union has rejected the government’s latest offer of a 25 cents per day wage increase.

What do plantation owners say?

Plantation owners have offered an increase of 14 taka a day, after an 18 taka rise last year.

They say they are going through difficult times with profits declining in recent years.

“In reality, what they are saying is not right. We provide a medical fund, retirement benefit, along with weekly rations and access to primary education for the children. It all adds up to around $4 a day,” Mohammed Mohsin, Tea Garden Owners Association, told Al Jazeera.

M Shah Alom, chairman of the Bangladesh Tea Association, said operators were “going through difficult times, with profit declining in recent times”.

“The cost of production is increasing. Our expenses have increased as the price of gas, fertiliser and diesel have gone up,” he told AFP.

Tea garden workers gather to take part in a protest demanding hike in their daily wages.
Nearly 150,000 people work at more than 200 Bangladeshi tea plantations, mostly located in the Sylhet region in northern Bangladesh [Mamun Hossain/AFP]

Tea plantation in Bangladesh

Nearly 150,000 people work at more than 200 Bangladeshi tea plantations, mostly located in the Sylhet region in northern Bangladesh.

Bangladesh is one of the world’s largest tea producers, exporting tea to more than 20 countries, including the United States, the United Kingdom and France.

But tea pickers, most of whom are female, work long hours and earn some of the lowest wages in the country.

Most tea workers are low-caste Hindus, the descendants of labourers brought to the plantations by colonial-era British planters in the 19th century.

Luchee Kandu and her husband work on a plantation. They say little has changed for tea workers over the generations.

“We hardly get any type of facilities, don’t have enough money for our children’s education, we barely get 3kg flour as ration once a week. Some days we don’t even get to eat, which is why we are protesting,” Kundu told Al Jazeera in Srimongal, known as Bangladesh’s tea capital.

Another tea picker, Shamoli Bhuyia, told Al Jazeera: “The owners don’t understand our plight. We have been demanding our daily wage be raised to $3 a day, then we will go back to work.”

Workers’ exploitation

Researchers say tea workers – who live in some of the country’s remotest areas – have been systematically exploited by the industry for decades.

The United Nations says they are one of the most marginalised groups in the country, with limited access to basic facilities and education.

“Tea workers are like modern-day slaves,” said Philip Gain, director of the Society for Environment and Human Development research group, who has written books on tea workers.

“The plantation owners have hijacked the minimum wage authorities and kept the wages some of the lowest in the world.”

Additional reporting by Tanvir Chowdhury from Srimongal

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies