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#Bangladesh: Unlocked tea-workers during #lockdown

Bangladesh. On April 15, workers of Kaliti Tea Garden, held a symbolic  protest with empty cooking pots demanding their due wages of the last  twelve weeks. – Collected.

Originally published by Bangladesh AnarchoSyndicalist Federation – BASF.

When the government announced  countrywide lockdown to cut the spread of COVID-19, most of the  industries were kept outside of the decision and tea workers are no  different. They have to work in grueling conditions with very less  health facilities and bare minimum wages, despite tea is more than one  hundred and fifty years old industry. Mikha Piregu is  the vice-president of University Tea Students’ Association who warns  that the owners and the state have to pay high price if they fail to  take necessary measures in time

WHEN districts of Sylhet  division announced lockdown to curb the spread of COVID-19, at least 150  tea gardens were kept out of this decision. In these gardens, more than  150,000 permanent and temporary workers are currently employed and  including their family members, more than 1.2 million people live in and  around these tea estates.

On march 31, during a press conference with the district deputy  commissioners and other administrative officials, the prime minister  Sheikh Hasina affirmed to continue the operations of the tea gardens. In  the conference, Syhlet district DC M Kazi Emdadul Islam informed the  premier about work abstention in several tea gardens and workers’  reluctance to work in two gardens.

In response she said that export oriented sectors should continue  production. Hasina also told the DC that tea workers work amidst the  nature; they usually pick leaves keeping distance from one another and  as the tea gardens have no chance of catch the COVID-19, there should  not be any fear. The prime minister also mentioned to keep a distance  among the workers when they submit their day’s work in line.

Such superficial comments from the top policy making level is a proof  that the government and its administrative wings are not well versed  about the tea gardens and its dynamics. International Labour  Organisation published a study titled ‘A Study Report on Working  Condition of Tea Plantation Workers in Bangladesh’ about the kind of  condition tea workers have to work in. That study shows tea workers’  health aspects are vigorously neglected. The study on 297 tea plantation  workers from 10 gardens found out that 63 per cent workers are at  serious health risk.

There were six focus group discussion for the study. Members of the  local governance body, society members, managers of tea gardens and  government representatives were present in those discussions. Most of  the gardens do not offer a simple shade for the workers to take shelter  during rain. The workers are in serious lack of physical rest, security  tools and sanitation facilities in work hours. Harassments while working  are persistent as well as lack of nutritious diet are threatening  workers’ health.

At least 75 per cent workers feel the adverse effects of their work  on their health. 84 per cent workers are suffering from headache while  74 per cent are working with muscle ache. At least 72 per cent workers  are suffering from back ache and 65 per cent workers have skin diseases.  There are no security tools like rubber boots, mask and gloves to  protect themselves from insects, snakes and different kinds of chemical  compounds used for the production.

Due to such grueling working conditions most of the tea workers  suffer from mental pressure. The labour law makes it compulsory to make  separate toilets for male and female workers. However, tea workers are  yet to see such facilities for them. A mere 13 per cent tea workers have  the facility to take rest or have launch under tree shades which means  the vast majority have to eat and take rest under rain or scorching sun.

The  research says that only a handful of the gardens, even after they are  in operation for over a century, offer the bare minimum of safe drinking  water to the workers. The health centres of the tea garden have a few  health workers under a compounder who are prescribing the same set of  medicines for most of the diseases and most of the workers have  complained about the quality of the medicines. The research also says  that 68 per cent of the workers have discontentment about the health  care facilities.

If we examine the trend of COVID-19 across the world, we can see that  the people with comparatively weaker immune system or who have previous  health conditions are at serious risk. In this regard, tea workers of  Bangladesh are at the highest risk. So, locking down the whole country  keeping the tea gardens operational is a poor decision which lacks  foresight.

In the 166 years of tea producing history, this part of the world  shattered previous all records to produce highest amount of tea in 2019.  This industry, based on the toiling labour of the workers, is  contributing more or less one per cent of the entire GDP. Even other  industries of Bangladesh are announcing paid leave for the workers  amidst the pandemic. The decision of keeping the tea gardens operational  even during this crisis feels like the government and the owners are  dreaming of breaking all previous records of tea production.

The tea workers’ unions inefficiency and flattery to the owners have  keep them ineffective for the workers. Most of them have forgotten the  historic ‘Dispel Solaiman’ movement during the 1969 mass uprising. Tea  worker leader Solaiman was an agent of the ruling quarters who ignored  the demands of the workers and used his power to douse workers’  protests. He was rejected by the workers and was ousted from the  gardens.

However, the leaders after him also followed his footsteps and ran  the labour unions to protect the interests of the owners. They were also  focused on entertaining the workers and the government ignoring the  demands of the workers. As a result, the dream of an effective tea  workers’ union, which ignited the ‘Dispel Solaiman’ movement is yet to  be realised.

The government understands GDP but does not or is unwilling to  understand the sufferings of the economically marginalised people. The  current prime minister promised, in the 2018 tea fair, to give two per  cent interest soft loan to the owners of tea estates to construct living  quarters for the workers. There is no update of that yet.

After decades of demands, in October 2019, the government announced  tea workers wage board, however, the wages are not yet determined. It  can be said that the tea workers will again be cheated by the government  and the owners’ greed and indifference through the toll this time might  be higher.

The government declared the entire Bangladesh as a high risk zone but  did not bother to close the tea gardens gerpardising lives of more than  1.2 million people. This is a clear indication of the state’s  indifference towards the tea works as well as two-barreled policy  making. This also proves that the state is for the ruling class and not  for the agricultural-tea workers.

On April 19, Kaliti Tea Garden worked held a seven-kilometre long march demanding due wages.

On March 4, Rema Tea Garden in Chunurghat upazila of Habiganj closed  due to a scuffle which occurred over tree plantation and when the  authorities of the tea garden took possession of the playground of the  estate. Following police cases filed by the authorities, more than five  hundred workers have lost their jobs and did not receive their wages.  Nearly a thousand families are continuing their lives in uncertainty and  fear of harassment.

More than one thousands workers of the Kaliti tea Garden of Kulaura  upazila in Moulvibazar did not receive their wages for the last three  months. However, tea workers usually receive their wages in weekly  basis. On April 15, the workers held a symbolic protest with empty  cooking pots and utensils. They also marched seven kilometres on April  19 as a protest.

Bangladesh Constitution’s second section, titled ‘Fundamental  Principles of State Policy’, in the Article 14, it is stated that ‘It  shall be a fundamental responsibility of the State to emancipate the  toiling masses the peasants and workers and backward sections of the  people from all forms and exploitation’.

The state and subsequent governments have been legitimised the  practice of exploit and repress the tea workers and keep them in the  social and economic margin. This should be stopped. The tea workers  should organise to claim their rights and protection of their lives.

The authorities should close the tea gardens, pay the workers’ salary  and ensure required health facilities during the COVID-19 crisis. If  they fail to do so, the government, the owners and the trade unions have  to pay a high price. When the workers rise after decades of negligence of the state, no force can control their rebellion.

Mikha Piregu is the president of Jahangirnagar University unit of Bangladesh Students’ Union.



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