New collective bargaining skills help Bangladesh’s tea picker fight for fair conditions

Workers in Bangladesh’s renowned tea plantations have been fighting injustice and exploitation for more than a century. Trade unions have made some recent progress in improving their working conditions, but much remains to be done.

The Friedrich-Ebert Stiftung has been working with the Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies (BILS) to help Bangladesh's tea sector improve its collective bargaining, rights and protection and better living standards utilizing the knowledge domain. Since 2016, FES and the BILS have been training labour representatives from the tea sector on collective bargaining and negotiation, rights and protection, and labour law, as well as how to gain more knowledge from published research.

Bangladesh has introduced some legislation to protect workers’ rights, namely the 2006 Labour Act on minimum wage, holidays, overtime, maternity leave, facilities, etc. However, the rules still discriminate against tea workers in some areas: other sectors provide one day of earned leave for every 18 days worked, compared with 22 days for tea workers.

Furthermore, such rules as do exist are not evenly enforced or respected. Tea workers, who often live in company accommodation, are frequently threatened with dismissal, eviction or wage cuts for accepting sub-standard conditions. “Our plantation owner was supposed to build us a house,” said Sojol Kairi, a worker at the Alinagar tea garden in the northeast of the country. “When I saw how bad it was, I asked him to make one like we had agreed. But instead, he gave me an impossible workload, and added other painful tasks to my duties.”

Bangladesh’s tea workers are from different ethnic backgrounds and were mostly brought by colonial employers from different parts of the Indian subcontinent during the 18th Century. The total population of the tea gardens is around 400,000. They are legally Bangladeshi citizens and in principle covered by labour legislation, but their conditions remain poor, with low wages, inadequate health support, insufficient schooling, job insecurity, and lack of sanitation.

Some are forced to meet demanding quotas of 20 or 25 kilogrammes of picked tea per day. The picking falls mostly to the women, some of whom have to rely on help from their children when they fall ill or are otherwise unable to meet the target. Many tea pickers and other workers are not aware of their rights. But even those who are often losing any hope of improving or escaping their situation.

The partnership of FES and the BILS aims to address this by informing tea workers of their rights and giving them the skills, knowledge and resources to make sure they are respected. The first training and workshops were held in the tea gardens of Sreemangal in the north-east, and Fatikchhari around 170 kilometres to the south, where the workers are now able to collectively bargain and negotiate with the employers as well as with the government. Labour representatives in Fatikchhari in particular have obtained many of their demands from garden management.

These initiatives have been assisted by the Bangladesh Chaa Sramik Union (BSCU), one of the oldest and largest labour organizations in the country, present across all sectors. BCSU works as a combined bargaining agent for workers at various meetings with the Bangladesh Tea Association (BTA) and related government bodies. They were recently successful in obtaining a wage increase through a national campaign and collective bargaining.

Historically, the knowledge and skills of the BSCU have needed updating to ensure they were able to hold their own in negotiations and establish decent working conditions for the tea workers. After interventions by the BILS and FES, we believe BCSU is now a competent and confident trade union, ready for any local or national collective bargaining and negotiation to ensure decent work for the tea garden workers. Most importantly, the tea workers now know their rights and are ready to negotiate or bargain collectively for fair wages and working conditions. Their knowledge also serves as a basis of sound ongoing labour relations, as they hold frequent meetings with the managers and the owners, which is needed and beneficial to the workers. Also, the garden owners know that the workers are now knowledgeable about their charter of demands and how to present this systematically.

Bangladesh is the 10th-largest tea producer in the world and is currently the ninth-largest exporter, with more than 165 tea gardens in several districts at the time of writing. There are two major tea-growing regions in the country, Sylhet in the northeast and Chattogram in the southeast. In addition, the Panchagarh district in northern Bangladesh also produces a significant amount of tea.

While the women mostly pluck the tea leaves, men are employed in the factory as operators, security, and supervisors. Maternity leave for women workers is provided under the labour legislation, although they often have to work until the last stage of pregnancy. Medical support and childcare facilities are limited. Mothers are forced to keep their infants at home or in the open field with other siblings. Tea workers’ wages have increased to 170 BDT from 120 BDT per day (1.62 USD from 1.15 USD) after a recent strike and protest.

Generations of workers have toiled in Bangladesh’s tea gardens, but too little has changed so far. They remain underprivileged and marginalized, subject to all manner of deprivation and exploitation. But it is important that the years of abuse are not allowed to defeat their hopes for change. It is the ambition of the FES-BILS partnership that the tea workers of Bangladesh and their representatives have the capacity and motivation to fight for a better, more just future, if not for themselves then for their descendants.

Iqbal Hossain is Programme Advisor at FES Bangladesh and leads the Academy of Work (AoW) programme. He works on labour issues in tea and fishery industries and also coordinates gender work at Bangladesh office.

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