The minimum daily wage of tea pickers in Bangladesh has been increased from BDT 120 (USD 1.26) to BDT 170 (USD 1.80) after tea workers went on strike for about three weeks. They are among the lowest paid workers in the country in an industry inherited from the British colonial rulers, and they remain one of the most marginalized and exploited communities in Bangladesh. Although they went on strike demanding a daily wage of BDT 300 (USD 3.16), Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina negotiated with the tea garden owners and fixed the new wages on August 27, 2022 affecting an approximate 25 percent hike.
The Tea Garden Owners Association claimed that the tea estates provide accommodation, retirement benefits, and medical funds, along with weekly food subsidies, and facilitate the primary education of the children of the workers, which brought their daily wages above BDT 400 (USD 4.2) before the increase. Different labour rights and civil society bodies in the country spoke out in support of the tea workers’ demands.
Although the tea workers union protested asking to increase the daily wage to BDT 300 (USD 3.16), they seem to be happy with the increase to BDT 170 (USD 1.80). Videos of them rejoicing have been seen on social media. However, many people have raised the question: how will the tea workers survive with low wages as inflation has pushed the cost of living out of their reach?
Tea garden worker Seema Mahali answered that question for BBC Bangla.
না হয় বাগানের জমিতে থাকি, কিন্তু ঘরের মেরামতের খরচ আমাদের। কাপড় কিনতে হয়, বাচ্চাদের পড়ালেখা করাতে হয়, চাল, ডাল সবজি কিনতে হয়। এই ১২০ টাকায় কি এতো কিছু হয়?
They may say that we live in a home provided by the tea estate, but the cost of repairing the house is ours. We still have to buy clothes, have to provide for our children's education — rice, pulses and vegetables have to be purchased. Is this BDT 120 [USD 1.26] enough?
Although a cup of tea costs over BDT 120 (USD 1.26) in elite tea shops in the capital, the tea workers earn so little that they cannot afford to buy chicken or vegetables from the market. Some even resort to a dish made out of tea leaves which is a common item in their everyday meals. Referring to that, writer Kasafaddauza Noman wrote:
এই অঞ্চলে চায়ের চেয়ে রোমাঞ্চকর জিনিস আর কী আছে? আমাদের প্রেম, আড্ডা, গল্প, গান, বিপ্লব, বিদ্রোহ কোনো কিছুই চা ছাড়া হয় না। বিজ্ঞাপন মারফত আমরা জানতে পারি কাপ শেষ হলেও রেশ রয়ে যায়, এক কাপ চায়ে তাজা হয়ে যাওয়া যায় নিমেষেই, এমনকি চায়ে চুমুক দিয়ে আমরা বদলে দিতে পারি পরিস্থিতি, প্রতিবাদ করতে পারি যেকোনো অন্যায়ের, পেয়ে যেতে পারি যুগান্তকারী আইডিয়া। কিন্তু বিজ্ঞাপনে চা শ্রমিকরা সারাজীবন ব্যাকগ্রাউন্ড প্রপস। দুটি পাতা একটি কুড়ি তোলার সুন্দর দৃশ্যটি আমাদের কাছে আরও সুন্দর হয়ে ওঠে দারুণ সিনেমাটোগ্রাফিতে। আর আজকাল তো নগরীর অভিজাত চায়ের দোকানে এক কাপ চা বিক্রি হয় ১২০টাকায়। সে চায়েরও হয় ফুড রিভিউ। অথচ শ্রমিকদের ১২০টাকার অসুন্দর জীবনের দৃশ্য সিনেমাটোগ্রাফিতেও আসে না, খবরেও খুব একটা পাওয়া যায় না। কারণ তারা চা পাতা ভর্তা খেয়েই কাটিয়ে দিচ্ছে বেহেশতি এই জীবন!
What could be more romanticizing than talking about tea in this region? Our love, chats, stories, songs and revolutions often mention tea as references. Through advertising, we can know that even after drinking a cup full of tea, the thirst remains; you can be refreshed instantly with a cup of tea. Even by only sipping tea, we can change any situation, we can protest against any injustice, and get revolutionary ideas. But tea workers in these advertisements are real-life background props. The beautiful scene of tea-plucking looks more beautiful to us through great cinematography. Nowadays, one has to pay at least BDT 120 [USD 1.26] in an elite tea shop and even food reviewers cover these. But no video depicts the scenes of the workers’ life struggle with a meagerly BDT 120 [USD 1.26] daily pay, nor are these discussed in the mainstream media. Because they are sustaining their lives in this heaven by eating tea leaves!
Many mega projects are currently underway in the country to continue its economic development. Referring to that, Tasmia Afrin Mou wrote on Facebook:
এত উন্নয়নকালে এই পোস্টার দেখতে হয় কেনো? ১৭০ টাকা রোজে মাসে ৩০ দিন কাজ করলেও চা শ্রমিক মাসে আয় করবেন ৫১০০ টাকা। কোনো আমিষ না, কোনো নিরামিষ না, কেবল ভাত আর রুটি হয় এই টাকায়?
Why do we have to see this poster [Editor's note: the poster reads “we want bread and rice in our meals — we want BDT 300 as daily wage”] during this phase of development of the country? Tea workers will earn BDT 5100 [USD 54] per month considering this increased rate of BDT 170 [USD 1.80] per day. Not even meat and vegetables, can a family afford rice and bread with this money [for a month]!
The tea industry in Bangladesh
Tea cultivation in Bangladesh started during British colonial rule. In 1840, the first tea garden was established in the port city of Chittagong. However, commercial tea cultivation started in the Sylhet region in 1857. At present, there are over 167 tea gardens in the country. A major part of the industry is located in the Sylhet, Habiganj and Moulvibazar areas. There are about 140,000 workers in all the gardens, and a majority of them have been engaged in this profession for generations.
During the 1860s and 1870s, the commercial success of tea plantations in the Assam and Sylhet regions attracted investment from many foreign companies. As a result, tea gardens in these regions started to grow. With that came the demand for more workers. In a 2014 research paper titled “History of Tea Gardens and Tea Workers of Bangladesh,” Riad Mahmud and Alida Binte Saqi reveal that the migration of tea workers was similar to the slave trade. The first workers who worked in tea plantations were not native to Sylhet. They came there from different parts of India — most from the famine-stricken areas. They were brought to the tea estates under false pretences, and locals called them “coolies.” The local inhabitants, tea estate owners and officials treated them like slaves.
Even in the 21st century, the condition of the tea workers has not changed much. Their income and living standards, and the inequality they face have come to the fore again in their recent protests.