The Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) urged authorities concerned to determine a reasonable wage for tea workers through dialogue instead of threatening to stop their ongoing peaceful and lawful movement demanding a wage hike.
A daily wage of only Tk120 with few facilities, for working eight hours or more, is discriminatory and unconstitutional, said the TIB in a press release yesterday.
To address the wage problem, plantation owners should abandon their colonial mentality and the government should consider tea workers as citizens of the country and take fair and humane initiatives, said the civil society organisation.
At the same time, TIB demanded plantation owners, the Cha Sangsad, and the government, effectively implement the labour law for tea plantation workers, taking minimum wage in other employment sectors of the country into account, to determine a reasonable remuneration, suitable and acceptable to tea workers.
Customarily, the wage agreement between workers and plantation authorities should be negotiated every two years, but in reality tea garden authorities unilaterally determine wages in most cases. Moreover, tea workers have remained out of wage contracts for the past 19 months.
TIB Executive Director Dr Iftekharuzzaman said the proposal to increase daily wages by only Tk14 amid the ongoing agitation at this time of an extreme rise in commodity prices is nothing but contempt for the fair demands of tea workers and a violation of their rights.
In a statement yesterday, Dr Iftekharuzzaman said, based on a "a fully objective research-based analysis, taking into account all the facilities provided to tea workers, including housing, it can be said the wages of tea workers are lowest and discriminatory compared to any other sector in the country, though this sector is very important economically."
"Furthermore, no one can say, referring to any statistics or data, that tea estate owners are financially distressed or in such a situation that they are unable to pay fair wages to workers on whom the tea industry depends. Rather, it is a profitable commercial sector," said the TIB executive director.
"It is not right to leave the responsibility of ensuring fair wages and other basic rights and facilities of tea workers to the sole discretion of owners. Considering the rights of tea workers as citizens of the country, the relevant ministries should take appropriate steps to understand the rationale of the ongoing lawful movement and should take effective steps through discussions to determine reasonable wages acceptable to tea workers," he added.
For the past few days, workers have been trying to draw the attention of plantation authorities by observing a peaceful strike, but the director general of the Department of Labour warned in a letter that the ongoing movement was a "violation of labour laws," which was basically nothing more than an expression of solidarity with the colonial mentality of the tea-industry owners, said Dr Iftekharuzzaman.
He said, "The authorities should investigate why the country's 'Minimum Wage Board' sets the minimum wage for other sectors several times higher compared to the tea sector, but under the influence of some invisible force, has ignored the labour ministry's 'guidelines' and has repeatedly recommended the minimum wage rates set by tea plantation owners."
In December 2018, TIB released a research report titled "Tea Plantation Working Environment and Workers' Rights: Governance Challenges and Ways Out", which made several recommendations – including setting a fair minimum wage for tea workers – to the government and concerned authorities.
TIB recommended humane treatment of workers, increasing effective inspection by the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments to ensure worker facilities and working environment in plantations, and completion of the contract renewal process through negotiation, one month before expiry of the agreement between workers and plantation authorities, so that it can be implemented as soon as it expires.