Skipping meals amid strike for pay rise, Bangladesh tea estate workers look to Hasina for support

The prime minister will sit with tea estate owners on Saturday afternoon to discuss the workers’ demand for a rise in daily wage from Tk 120 to Tk 300

Marium SultanaStaff Correspondentbdnews24.com
Published : 26 August 2022, 06:15 PM
Updated : 26 August 2022, 06:15 PM

Shakuntala Modi has been the sole breadwinner of a family of six since her husband died seven years ago. With the meagre Tk 120 daily wage, the worker of Begum Khan Tea Estate in Habiganj’s Chunarughat could barely feed the family, let alone send her two children to school.

She joined protests launched by around 125,000 workers of 241 tea estates in Bangladesh on Aug 9, demanding that the owners raise their daily wage to Tk 300. They started an indefinite strike after daily two-hour work abstention for four days.

Speaking to bdnews24.com on Friday, Shakuntala said her family were eating only spinach, which they picked up from the backswamps in the area, with a pinch of salt and chilli, after they ran out of rice four days ago.

“No rice for four days. How would I get the money to buy rice? No work for 18 days. Rations are off. We eat one meal a day and skip the other.”

She lamented she could not send her children to school. “What education could they have with my Tk 120 daily wage? I cannot buy them soap. People at school would have hated them for being dirty.”

No rice for four days. How would I get the money to buy rice? No work for 18 days. Rations are off. We eat one meal a day and skip the other.
Shakuntala Modi, tea estate worker

Another worker Nilu Bauri’s daughter is preparing for the SSC exams while her son has passed the test but he cannot work. “How can he work with no food in his stomach?”

Nilu received Tk 235 as the payment of two days of work and 1 kg rice on Thursday. “Last night we had rice with spinach and lentils for the first time in seven to eight days,” she said, sobbing.

Nilu had to send her mother to Nilu’s elder sister after the strike began. “I can’t feed her here. She may have some food there to survive.”

Akashmati Santal of Chanpur Tea Estate said the shopkeepers refused to give them rice although they promised to pay later.

Shyam Roy Karmakar, president of a youths’ association at Shahbazpur Tea Estate in Moulvibazar’s Baralekha, and the tea estate Panchayet Chairman Meghnath Nayek said they received Tk 120 for the National Mourning Day holiday - the only earning since they launched the strike. They said some workers were working as day labourers outside the tea estate.

“We, poor workers, struggle to live on with the meagre wage. And now the ration and that payment are off for 14 days,” said Shyam.

LOOKING TO HASINA

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina will sit with tea estate owners on Saturday afternoon to discuss the workers’ demand.

“Let’s see what the prime minister does for us. We are looking to her for support,” said Nilu.

Akashmati said it would be difficult for them to survive if the daily wage is set less than Tk 300, but they would accept it Hasina herself makes the announcement. “Otherwise we won’t return to work.”

Nripen Paul, acting general secretary of Bangladesh Tea Workers Union, and Raju Goala, president of the union’s Sylhet unit, believe Hasina will do something for them.

They also said the workers would accept whatever she says.

“The situation will worsen if the movement continues. We want both the workers and the industry to survive,” said Raju.

Nripen said the leaders had lifted the strike after the local authorities assured them of looking into their demand, but the strike resumed as the workers refused Tk 145 offered by the owners.

The situation will worsen if the movement continues. We want both the workers and the industry to survive
Raju Goala, tea estate workers’ leader

Anil Tantobai, a member of the local union council who works at a tea estate in Sreemangal’s Kalighat, said he hoped Hasina would also look into their demand for the ownership of the land they have been living on through 175-year family lineage.

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.

“And not all the tea gardens have a school. I hope these problems will also be solved in the meeting,” said Anil.

Tea estate workers are arguably the lowest paid workers in Bangladesh and most vulnerable to crises like the one Bangladesh is facing right now with prices skyrocketing.

The owners, however, claim the workers are actually paid Tk 300 a day, including housing and ration costs.

Toufique Imrose Khalidi
Editor-in-Chief and Publisher