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Tea Workers of Bangladesh

background of Bangladesh tea industries

Tea Workers of Bangladesh

Tea workers of Bangladesh are extremely skill full and one of the major tea exporters in the world, from their thousands of plantations.

Bangladesh’s tea industry employs about a million people, largely women, who are responsible for picking and processing tea leaves. Nonetheless, these workers are among the lowest-paid and most marginalized in the nation, confronting poverty, exploitation, and discrimination. They are diverse in ethnicity, language, religion, economics, education, profession, and emotions. Between 1900 and 1930, more than 150–200,000 people (approximately 9–12%) migrated from various parts of India to the Sylhet region to labor in the tea gardens.

Tea laborers reside in 131 tea estates (2019) in the Sylhet division, most of which are located in the Moulvibazar and Habiganj districts. Additionally, they reside in tea plantations in the Chittagong and Rangpur divisions. Tea workers have a unique identity and culture distinct from conventional Bengali society. They have their languages, religions, festivals, customs, traditions, and forms of artistic expression.

Most tea workers are low-caste Hindus or tribal people brought over by British colonial rulers (from Bihar, Orissa, Madras, and other parts of India) in the 1850s when they established the first tea estates in Bangladesh. They had no choice but work under severe conditions with inadequate wages and no legal protections. They were isolated from mainstream society and culture and forced to live in overcrowded settlements dubbed “labour lines” within the plantations, with limited access to basic services such as health, education, water, and sanitation. They also must follow strict rules and laws set by the plantation owners, who often control their lives and movements.

The major ethnic groups of tea workers are Oraon, Munda, Santal, Kharia, Mahali, Malpahariya, Rajbongshi, and Bhumij. They speak various languages, such as Kurukh, Sadri, Mundari, Santali and Kharia. Most are Hindus, Christians, or Sarnaites (a nature-based religion). They celebrate various festivals such as Christmas, Rash Mela, Karam Puja, Sarhul Puja and Sohrai Puja. The culture of the tea workers is extensively rooted in the tea gardens, and they have developed their own customs and traditions. They have their traditional tunes, dances, and musical instruments, including the mandar (drum), banam (fiddle), nagara (kettle drum), bansuri (flute), and jhumur (anklet).

What are their demands?

Tea workers initiated a nationwide strike in August 2022 to press for their demand of 300 taka (approximately $3.15) per day, which they claim is the bare minimum required to meet their basic needs and combat rising inflation. Various civil society groups, trade unions, and political parties have expressed their solidarity with the striking tea workers and urged the government to intervene and resolve the issue.

What are their conditions of employment?

Tea laborers are one of the nation’s most marginalized and discriminated communities. They work long hours (8 to 10 hours per day) and perform labor-intensive tasks, including picking tea leaves, pruning bushes, weeding, applying fertilizers and pesticides, carrying large loads, and processing tea leaves in factories. Tea workers only make 120 taka ($1.25) a day, barely enough to buy food, let alone other things like clothes, medicine, or schooling for their children. According to a 2018 study conducted by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS), approximately 74% of tea laborers live in poverty, compared to the national average of 24%. Many tea laborers suffer from malnutrition, anemia, and other health issues due to poor diet and working conditions. They are exposed to various occupational hazards such as chemical exposure, injuries, snakebites, infections, and diseases. They don’t have Social Security, a pension, unemployment benefits, or a provident fund. They have limited access to fundamental utilities like water, sanitation, electricity, health care, and education.

The strike has brought attention to broader social justice and human rights issues affecting tea laborers and their communities. Tea workers are often discriminated and are left out of conventional society because of their caste, ethnicity, religion, and job. Their rights to land ownership, citizenship, identity, and dignity are often denied. They are vulnerable to violence, harassment, and abuse by plantation administrators and local authorities.

Despite these obstacles, the tea workers possess a robust sense of community and solidarity. The cultural practices, cuisine, and lifestyle of the tea laborers have become an integral part of the region’s identity and are a must-see for anyone interested in the cultural diversity of Bangladesh.
The Plight of Tea Workers in Bangladesh.