Tea plantation in this region began in the hands of the British in 1839 in Assam. In 1854, the first commercial-scale tea garden was founded in the Sylhet area.
Today, tea is the most popular drink in Bangladesh after water. The tea consumed here is produced locally. But those who play the key role in production – the workers – are not local.
They were brought here by the British companies from other areas of India- Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and other states.
The labourers were given hope of a bright future. But it soon faded away.
Those who survived the long journey from home, soon found themselves living in dire straits, toiling to make ends meet. The labourers built lavish bungalows for the garden owners and managers, cleared forests, planted tea seedlings and shade trees and in exchange, they were treated like slaves.
Tea workers started protesting inhuman working conditions and torture by the tea planters. On May 20, 1921, thousands of tea workers set off for their homeland leaving their workplaces, with the slogan of 'Mulluk Cholo,' meaning 'return to homeland'.
But they never got back home.
As the protest march reached Meghna ghat in Chandpur, police opened fire, killing many workers. As the rest of the protesters fled, they were caught, tortured and sent back to work.
One hundred years after the failed Mulluk Cholo movement, today, tea workers are citizens of a new independent county. Does it feel like home for the workers? Has it become their homeland?
"A worker gets only Tk120 for a day and some fringe benefits. For a family of five, it's a meagre income. It is impossible to save money and buy land outside the garden, so we are stuck in the labour lines for four or five generations,"-- Silas Gaddi, tea worker
Tea workers' families still live in labour lines- the villages set up in the tea gardens. In legal terms, nothing prevents the workers from buying land outside the garden and living there, but that does not happen.
"A worker gets only Tk120 for a day and some fringe benefits. For a family of five, it's a meagre income. It is impossible to save money and buy land outside the garden, so we are stuck in the labour lines for four or five generations," said Silas Gaddi, who lives in Karimpur Tea Garden in Moulvibazar.
Improving the lives of a large chunk of these tea labourers through education is also not an easy task, Silas said.
"The government distributes books and all, but after class eight or nine, most students drop out of school due to extreme poverty," explained Silas.
Although the tea labourers have been living on the land for more than 170 years, they are not the legal owners of the land.
"According to article 32 of labour law, if someone is out of job, he/she has to leave the labour line. We don't possess land anywhere else, where would we go?" questioned Rambhajan Kairi, general secretary of Bangladesh Cha Sramik Union (Bangladesh Tea Labourers' Union).
"A century ago, when we wanted to leave this place for our homes, our people were killed and tortured. Now that we want to live here in the gardens, we are threatened to be kicked out," added Kairi.
"Now Bangladesh is our home. Our people have contributed in the anti-colonial movement, as well as in the war of independence. But as much as we consider it our homeland, it also has a responsibility to fulfil our dreams and expectations," the union leader continued.
The government formed a wage board to review the minimum wage for the tea workers in 2019. The board was supposed to submit the report in six months, but they have not done so yet, Kairi complained.
The workers' union has also placed a demand for a daily wage of Tk300, keeping other fringe benefits intact.
"Tk300 is still a very low wage, so we'll need to continue to receive ration and other benefits," the labour leader clarified.
To improve the lot of the tea workers, the new homeland needs to extend more help to the community, the workers' leader feels.
According to the labour law, workers from all other sectors are entitled to 10-day casual leave with the exception of tea workers. Since this provision of exception is in practice in the law, Kairi asked, why not make a similar provision in the law regarding eviction from home as stated in the article 32?
"This would protect us from the threats of eviction from labour lines," Kairi said.
"Bangladesh is our homeland, but some are keen to keep us as foreigners in our own land!" exclaimed Rambhajan Kairi.