Tea production and export boom in Bangladesh, but plantation workers live on the margins

And yet the workers at the expense of whose labour this growth comes to fruition are systematically denied their rights to a living wage and decent working and living conditions.

The tea garden workers say their leaders organise different programmes to register their demands with the authorities on May Day every year, but with little to no impact.

These workers pluck leaves by the sweat of their brows under the scorching sun and get wet in incessant rain, yet they are remaining victims of pay inequality, unable to meet their basic living costs.

Bangladesh has been an independent nation for 50 years, yet these tea garden workers have been at it since nearly 175 years.

Tea workers also struggle to get timely and good quality healthcare, access clean drinking water, and provide their children with a decent education.

Women bear the heaviest burden of systemic inequality, as they are concentrated in the lowest paid plucking roles and also shoulder most of the unpaid domestic care work.

The workers’ chief demands this year are acquiring land rights and a pay rise which will make living their lives without struggle.

Officials say there are 80,000 labourers  working on 93 tea plantations across Moulvibazar district.

Parimal Singh Baraik, a leader of tea workers, said, “Our wage is Tk 120 and some rations. The workers spend their days with their family, which include their fathers, mothers, spouses and children, with this pay.

“The story of these workers will sound like myth even in these modern times, if no one witnesses them first-hand.”

Bijay Bunarji, another tea workers’ leader from Sreemangal Rajghat Union Parishad Council, said: “The population of tea gardens has gone up now. Even if there are two-three members of a family capable of working, only one will get engaged in the tea plantation.”

“Some families also work temporarily on a daily wage of just Tk 85. It is not sufficient for their education, healthcare or sanitation.”

Another tea workers’ leader Dilip Kairi, who is also a teacher, said these labourers have been residing on a land through their 200-year lineage. “How long will it take them to own the land?” he questioned.

Following the law, the residents of the areas surrounding the tea gardens have won ownership of the land they are living on, but no such luck for these workers despite their hard labour and active contribution to the country’s economy.

One other leader, Md Selim Haque thinks it is crucial to establish government primary schools in these tea gardens to raise the level of their education.

“In the 50 years of independence, not all tea gardens have schools. Some were set up in Sreemangal several years ago on the instruction of the prime minister.”