Tea garden authorities in Sylhet are worried about the gathering of the harvest after workers went on strike demanding an increase in daily wages from Tk 120 to Tk 300.
Generally, the period between the end of May and October is thought of as the peak season for plucking tea leaves. Workers can pluck more leaves than usual during this period. Their wages are also higher as a result.
Daily wage workers who are not attending work at this time are being deprived of their salaries. Garden owners are also staring at losses as tea leaves lose their quality once they grow bigger.
"Now is the peak leaf-plucking season. If the young leaves are not collected now then the yearly target will not be met. The leaves that have been plucked are rotting in various sections of the gardens as the labourers are not working. The authorities will face losses due to this,” said Salim Reza, manager of Zerin Tea Garden located in Sadar Union of Moulvibazar’s Srimangal Upazila.
Salim has called upon the workers to withdraw the strike and return to work. However, the workers said that they have been forced to go on strike to claim their rights despite suffering losses as they have no other option.
Vijay Hazra, organising secretary of the Bangladesh Tea Workers Union, said, "The workers are helpless. The salary that they are earning is not enough. Who can survive on Tk 120? What is the daily wage of a general worker in the market? And how much are we getting?”
"If you don't work for a day, you have to starve with your family. We have been forced to strike for something better despite the losses.”
Workers of 241 tea gardens, including those in Moulvibazar, Habiganj and Sylhet, have participated in a daylong strike after observing two-hour work stoppages for three-four consecutive days. The Tea Workers Union relaxed their programme for two days for the weekend holiday and the National Mourning Day. The workers have announced to go on strike again from Tuesday.
Tea leaves were found to have grown bigger in a few tea gardens around Srimangal Sadar on Monday with sprouting new buds. Epiphytic plants were also spotted in some parts. A round of leaves is about to be wasted.
According to the authorities, once young leaves are plucked from a tree, it is then left alone for the next seven-nine days. In the meantime, new buds and leaves grow. The new leaves are plucked within three days of formation. Plucking leaves once is known as 'one-round.'
Big leaves are often not plucked by garden authorities as they do not lead to profits.
The workers said that they receive the daily wage of Tk 120 per day only when they can collect a minimum of 24 kilograms of leaves. The wages are proportionally less if the weight is below 24 kg.
Usually, a worker can pluck up to 50 kg of leaves in the peak season because there are a large number of young leaves in the trees at this time. Their income is also higher at this time.
For each kg after 24 kg, the workers get Tk 4 to Tk 5, depending on the tea garden, said General Manager Golam Mohammad Shibli of Srimangal's Bharaura Tea Garden.
From November to January, there is a shortage of young leaves. Workers can only collect up to 15 kg of leaves daily during this period and fail to earn Tk 120 in daily wage.
A little extra income during the peak season serves as an 'asset' for the workers during the hard times. From January to early May, the workers attend to other tasks in the garden.
There are a total of 241 tea gardens in the country, including 23 in Sylhet valley, 24 in Habiganj and 92 in Moulvibazar. Of these, 167 are the main gardens while the rest are 'outpost gardens.'
There are comparatively fewer workers in 'outpost gardens.' A total of 96.5m kg of tea was produced in 2021 in 241 tea gardens.
Protest leaders have said that they have kept the door open for negotiations in order to return to work. The Tea Workers Union submitted a memorandum to the Department of Labour on Sunday seeking the prime minister's intervention for the increase in wages.
The union sat with the labour department on Tuesday regarding the issue.
Tea Workers Union Treasurer Paresh Kalindi said that the strike is set to continue. "Workers will immediately resume work once a standard wage is negotiated."
Nahidul Islam, deputy director of the labour department, said that if the negotiations with the union are fruitful, the director general may later hold discussions with the owners of the gardens.
He also said that if there is a dispute in any industry, the labour department comes forward and tries to resolve it. If any industry shuts down, the owners and workers are affected and the government is also deprived of revenue.
According to Bangladesh Tea Workers Union and Bangladesh Tea Parliament Act, the plantation owner will ensure fair wages, bonuses, accommodation, education, medical treatment, ration, and drinking water to the workers.
A meeting is held between the Bangladesh Tea Workers Union and the Bangladeshi Tea Parliament every two years to discuss the wages. An agreement is signed after a consensus is reached. The workers then receive salaries and other benefits for the next two years according to the agreement.
The last two-year contract with the tea workers expired in December 2020. Afterwards, in a 20-point demand, the Tea Workers Union asked the Bangladeshi Tea Parliament for a daily wage of Tk 300 on Jan 19, 2021. So far, 13 meetings have been held between the two parties over the matter. But the labour leaders complained that their demands were not implemented.
Labour leaders said that on Aug 3, the owners of the tea estates were given a one-week ultimatum to increase the wages of the workers. But they paid no heed to it.
In protest, the workers observed a two-hour strike in tea gardens across the country from Aug 9. After the owners still refused to accept their demands, the workers then went on an indefinite strike.
The officials of the departmental labour sat in a meeting with 10 labour leaders of 24 tea gardens in Habiganj on Thursday evening, but the discussions were not fruitful.
When asked about the workers' movement, Golam Mohammad Shibli, chairman of the Sylhet branch of the Bangladeshi Tea Parliament, said that it is completely unethical to go on strike within the framework of the agreement. So far, 13 meetings have been held on workers' issues. Productive discussions were also held.
“We have agreed on various issues, including increasing their bonuses, towels and baskets. We have also given a proposal for increased wages. This industry must be sustained. The price of tea leaves has not increased in the last 10 years. But the salaries of tea workers have increased several times in 10 years.”
He further said, “Flour is given to the workers once a week at the rate of TK 2 per kg. We are providing accommodation, treatment, and education. If all this is taken into account, their daily wage amounts to Tk 350.”