Slavery is what slavery's always been: About one person controlling another person using violence and then exploiting them economically, paying them nothing.
- Kevin Bales
Many of us have been to the tea garden and were enthralled by the breathtaking view of the greeneries. We feel instantly refreshed and all our exhaustion from our dreary life vanishes as quickly as it is shown in the TV advertisement of tea leaves. However, little has been discussed of the exploitation of the very people that work in these gardens.
The tea industry in Bangladesh was established by the British and tea garden workers were brought in from other parts of the Indian sub-continent, largely from Bihar and Orissa. These poor and vulnerable people that were targeted belonged to the lower castes and were lured with promises which were never materialised. One hundred and fifty years or four to five generations later, the descendants of those original immigrants still find themselves entrapped in a plight where every other identity has been stolen from them, except their identity as serfs.
At present, Bangladesh has 167 tea estates in total, including many of the world's largest working plantations. While the owners count their fortunes in billions, the tea workers earn a basic wage of just Tk120 a day which is the lowest among all other industries. The bilateral agreement between the Bangladesh Tea Garden and the Bangladesh Tea Garden Workers Union regarding wages and other facilities is not renewed in time and at times the conditions are not fulfilled as per the agreement. In the last two decades, the wage has only doubled whereas the income from the tea industry has increased many folds.
Tea garden workers are Bangladeshi citizens and their rights are covered by the Bangladesh Labour Act, 2006 as well as in the Fundamental Rights enlisted in the constitution. However, labour provisions are not generally implemented in practice for the tea garden workers and they are systematically suppressed when they attempt to raise their voice. They are fearful of making complaints to the manager and the only other option for addressing their grievance is by seeking intervention of the labour court. There are only seven labour courts in Bangladesh; three of which are based in Dhaka, two in Chattagram, one in Rajshahi and one in Khulna. There is no labour court in Sylhet and cases have to be brought from Sylhet to Chattagram which is difficult to access due to distance and finance.
These people are not only deprived of their wages, they are further excluded economically, socially, and politically. Even though they are Bangladeshi citizens, no political parties have expressed interest in ensuring them a better life. The rights of indigenous people are often mentioned, but the tea garden workers remain marginalised among the most-marginalised. The process of exclusion is systematic and it is evident from the fact that it is hard to find government primary schools in the gardens, let alone high schools.
There are few NGO operated schools but the chance to attain secondary education remains bleak. Without education and skills, there remains no alternative option for them which keeps them tied in this invisible chain of exploitation. According to a TIB research regarding healthcare, 11 of the 64 gardens do not have an operational health care centre. Overall, they are living in an estate within the state where they don't have the access to basic necessities of life. The arrangement of keeping them enslaved is so reliable that even the daughters cannot be married to individuals outside the garden.
History of slavery led to the adoption of the first human rights law and the condition of the tea garden workers infringe every right guaranteed to them by the constitution, UDHR, ICCPR, and every other relevant law. The scenario of tea garden workers in our neighbouring countries is somewhat better. In India, the unskilled worker gets a minimum wage of Rs331 per day which is more than double in comparison to a Bangladeshi skilled worker. Indian workers also get a better deal in accessing additional benefits such as rations, medical care, housing, education, provident fund profit, bonus, and gratuity.
These people must be helped and it is imperative that it starts with us. We have to demand a better life for them where free education for all the children of the tea garden workers has to be ensured by implementing the universal government education policy. A logical, fair, and compatible wage structure has to be introduced which will be reviewed after a certain time following the market price. The basic rights of the workers have to be corroborated in accordance with the constitution of the country and the labour law. We must focus on the rehabilitation of these people who have been neglected by the state, government, and the law for the longest time.
Tanjina Rahman Priti is a research associate of Bangladesh Forum for Legal and Humanitarian Affairs
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.