Published:  01:11 AM, 23 February 2019

Story of tea garden workers

Story of tea garden workers

Kingshuk Partha

Bangladesh is the tenth tea producing and ninth tea exporting country in the world. The first commercial-scale tea garden in Bangladesh was established in 1854. Today there are 164 tea gardens in Bangladesh located in seven districts. Tea is cultivated on 115,757 hectares of land. A total of 359,085 people live in tea garden areas, including 89,812 registered workers and 19,592 casual workers working in the tea gardens.

The tea garden workers of Bangladesh lead a poor life due to their low income (less than US$1 for a day's work from sunrise to sunset), which is much lower than that of any other country. Most of workers of the tea state are Women. This Story seeks to understand the implications to women's labor in such situation wherein the forces of production and patriarchal norms and social conditions interplay in their everyday life. It arises several questions.

How such extensions infiltrate into women's capacity to negotiate their labor power? Has women's role as both producers and reproducers for the tea economy strengthened or enhanced in this historical trajectory? The main focus is to understand the women's agency of labor in their multiple spheres of work and work places through their lived experience as a worker, as an earning member of the family and as a key player in the industry.

It shows that gender division of labor is highly practiced in tea plantations. A large portion of workers are women and they are predominantly involved in tea plucking. In the sample, women workers were engaged in tea plucking, while factory workers, supervisors and security guards were predominantly men workers.

There are some gender biased beliefs and practices amongst management in the tea industry. It is generally believed that women are more efficient and skilled in plucking tea due to their nimble fingers. On the other hand the socio-cultural norms of tea plantation worker communities allow women to participate in the family decision-making process.

According to respondents most family decisions are made jointly by both husband and wife. The family economy is managed by the women workers in some instances.  It is important to give special attention to gender aspects since women workers are more vulnerable than male workers in the tea industry.

Working Hours and Leave Tea garden workers usually work six days a week. During peak months, most workers have to work additional hours. Despite Rainy season they don't stop working.  They usually do it willingly because extra income comes from additional hours. According to respondents, during peak season, pressure of plucking increases and most of plucking workers engage for additional hours.

They take a break once a day depending on the pressure of work.  Most the gardens have a specific time to take a mid-time break to weigh their plucked leaves. This break time is also for a mid-day meal and refreshments. There is no fixed duration for the break. It varies from ten minutes to two hours. Few tea gardens with low production have no provision for break. Workers prefer to avoid taking breaks so that they can meet their targets quicker and leave the workplace sooner.

The work condition of the tea workers who spend most of their working time under the scorching sun or getting soaked in rains is a concern. A woman tea leaf picker spends almost all her working hours for 30 to 35 years standing before she retires. The working hours for the tealeaf pickers, mostly women, are usually from 8 AM to 5 PM [7-8 hours excluding break for lunch] from Monday to Saturday. Sunday is the weekly holiday. To earn some extra cash, the extra work brings additional grief.

The wages, daily or monthly, is the single most concern. The maximum daily cash pay for the daily rated worker less than half a US$. This is a miserable pay having a severe effect on the daily lives of the tea workers. Although the workers get rations at a concession, a family can hardly have decent food items on their plate. They indeed have very poor quality and protein-deficient meals. Their physical appearance tells of their malnourishment.

Many believe that there is no justification for low wages of the tea plantation workers in Bangladesh. They deserve much higher wages.

The tea plantation workers are not just poor, they are a particularly deprived marginal community in captive situation.They have limited scope to integrate with the people of the majority community and they face great difficulties in exploring livelihood options outside the tea gardens. The tea plantation workers want the State to address to address their case with care and translate its commitment to them providing political and human protection.

Photographer: Kingshuk Partha

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