DHAKA: Despite briefly agreeing to go back to work, tea workers across Bangladesh continued to protest over the weekend, underscoring growing frustration over meagre wages amid accelerating inflation.
Workers from over 160 tea plantations across the nation are demanding a raise to the equivalent of US$3 per day, from US$1.20, which makes them the country’s lowest-paid workforce.
They secured a much more modest increase, to about US$1.50, along with a promise from Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s office that she would hear their plight. At one point on the weekend, the workers said they would return to the fields for the time being, ahead of an expected meeting between their representatives and the prime minister in the coming weeks.
However, the tea labour leader backtracked on accepting the offer, and the workers are again insisting they will not return until their US$3 demand is granted.
Yesterday, they blocked the Dhaka-Sylhet highway, halting movement of vehicles.
The strike, now in its second week, comes amid surging living costs in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has fueled price rises worldwide. In June, the nation’s inflation rate soared to 7.56%, the highest in eight years, according to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics. Earlier this month, sudden fuel price hikes heaped even more pressure on consumers.
But tea workers have it harder than most — a fact that moved people from all strata of society to support their cause.
Abdus Shahid, a member of parliament in the tea production area of the Maulvibazar district, demanded that the minimum wage for the workers be US$5. In universities in Dhaka and Sylhet, students also rallied, calling the tea workers victims of “modern-day slavery.”
On Friday, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) — the main opposition party — issued a statement urging the plantation owners to accept the workers’ demand. “Steps need to be taken to enhance tea workers’ wages to help them come out from starvation, poverty and sufferings,” said Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir, the BNP’s general secretary.
There are 100,000 permanent tea workers and 50,000 more temporary labourers in 167 tea plantations in Bangladesh. They support some 500,000 dependents. But even the US$1.20 a day was not guaranteed: If they collect less than 23kg of leaves, they get paid less.
The Bangladesh Tea Association (BTA), a body of landowners, said in a statement that the workers earn the equivalent of US$4 a day, including benefits such as free housing, 3.5kg of wheat rations per week and access to medical care.
“We will settle the wage issue and [have] requested the workers to resume work,” said M. Shah Alam, chairman of the BTA.
The workers argued the medical facilities mentioned by the BTA are poor and inadequate, while the housing amounts to shanties that they are expected to pay for.
Either way, their situation compares unfavourably to their peers in other sectors, including day labourers and rickshaw pullers who can earn around US$8 to US$10 a day. Tea workers in neighbouring countries are relatively better-paid as well: In the Indian state of Assam, just opposite the Bangladeshi tea plantations in Sylhet, the authorities on Aug 10 agreed to raise wages by about 34 cents to the equivalent of about US$2.90, amid strikes and legal cases in upper courts. Last year, in India’s Tamil Nadu, wages rose to equal about US$5.35 a day, while Nepali and Sri Lankan tea pickers earn around US$3 a day, according to local reports.
While the raise to US$1.50 a day offers some relief, it is still only half what the workers sought, suggesting many may not be satisfied.
The tea pickers are not Bangladesh’s only frustrated workers. Labourers in the vast garment industry took to the streets in June, clashing with police in some cases.
On June 6, Shajahan Khan, a government representative and former shipping minister, pledged to form a wage board as soon as possible to establish a new pay structure for the garment workers. He also said the government would arrange ration cards for workers so that they can buy some basic commodities at subsidised prices.
Neither the wage board nor the ration cards have materialised.
Now there are signs of an emerging united front among workers’ groups.
Labour leaders are calling for immediate wage hikes in all trades. “There are no other options but to raise wages without delay to help workers survive,” said Nazma Akter, a former child worker and executive director of the Awaj Foundation, a labour rights organisation.
Noting the lack of follow-through on the wage board and rations, she said, “The wage hike issue is being discussed among the labour organisations separately, and we may sit together soon to devise a strategy to press home the demand.”
Still, garment factory owners insist they cannot afford to increase pay due to a steep increase in production costs. “The government can provide workers commodities at a subsidised rate,” argued Shahidullah Azim, vice president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association.