Workers of 241 tea estates have launched a daily two-hour strike for a hike in wage to Tk 300 from Tk 120 a day as determined 19 months ago.
The tea plantations include 24 in Habiganj, 23 in Sylhet and 92 in Moulvibazar. The workers of the tea gardens joined the strike, called by Bangladesh Tea Workers Union, from 8am to 10am on the opening day on Tuesday. In some places, the strike was enforced from 10am to 12pm.
Leaders of the union said the owners’ organisation, Bangladesh Tea Association, had signed a deal with the workers’ group in December 2020 for a pay hike to Tk 300 per day, but it has not implemented the agreement.
The union leaders have threatened to launch a full-scale strike and blockade if their demand is not met within three days.
“The many workers of Bangladesh are deprived of basic rights despite being voters. We pluck leaves by the sweat of our brows under the scorching sun and get wet in incessant rain. And yet we get Tk 120 a day. We can’t hold on like this. Our back is against the wall,” said Sadhan Santal, president of Chandpur Tea Garden Panchayat in Habiganj.
“Price of every commodity is skyrocketing, but we still get Tk 120 after working from dawn to dusk. The money we get in a day is not enough to buy one litre of oil. We run out of money after buying 2 kg of vegetables with what we get. The wage must be raised to Tk 300 to save the workers’ lives,” said Khairun Akter, president of Bangladesh Cha Kanya, an organisation of female tea workers.
Bangladesh's tea industry has set successive records of production and export in the 168 years of commercial production and targets 140 million kg output in 2025.
Still, 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.
They 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.
Nripen Paul, acting general secretary of the union, said they launched the strike after the owners had offered a Tk 14 pay rise. “We will shutter down the gardens if our demand is not met within Friday. We will hit the streets if necessary.”
The workers also demonstrated outside Lakkatura Tea Garden on the road to Sylhet MAG Osmani International Airport, and at Malinichhara, Khadimnagar, Kewachhara, Daldali, Jaflong and Lalakhal estates.
The demonstrators said their leaders submitted a memorandum to the owners’ association on Aug 3, giving them a seven-day ultimatum to meet the demand. As the owners paid no heed, the workers launched the strike.
Bijoy Bunarji, a leader of the workers’ union who was elected chairman of Rajghat union council, said the owners have not raised their pay as per the last deal although the time for a new deal has arrived.
Golam Mohammad Shibli, Sylhet unit chairman of the owners’ association, said discussions were ongoing about the workers’ demand.
“But the strike will hamper production and the workers will face financial losses.”
He said the workers need to keep in mind that tea prices “have not increased for a long time”.