DHAKA (AFP) – Nearly 150,000 workers at more than 200 Bangladeshi tea plantations went on strike yesterday to demand a 150 per cent rise to their dollar-a-day wages, which researchers say are among the lowest in the world.
Most tea workers in the country are low-caste Hindus, the descendants of labourers brought to the plantations by colonial-era British planters.
The minimum wage for a tea plantation worker in the country is BDT120 a day – about USD1.25 at official rates, but only just over a dollar on the free market. One worker said that was barely enough to buy food, let alone other necessities.
“Nowadays we can’t even afford coarse rice for our family with this amount,” said Anjana Bhuyian, 50. “A wage of one day can’t buy a litre of edible oil. How can we then even think about our nutrition, medication, or children’s education?” she told AFP.
Unions are demanding an increase to BDT300 a day, with inflation rising and the currency depreciating, and said that workers in the country’s 232 tea gardens began a full-scale strike yesterday, after four days of two-hour stoppages.
“Nearly 150,000 tea workers have joined the strike today,” said a committee member of the Bangladesh Tea Workers’ Union Sitaram Bin.
“No tea worker will pluck tea leaves or work in the leaf processing plants as long as the authority doesn’t pay heed to our demands,” he told AFP.
Plantation owners have offered an increase of BDT14 a day, after an BDT18 rise last year and chairman of the Bangladesh Tea Association M Shah Alom said operators were “going through difficult times with profit declining in recent times”.
“The cost of production is increasing. Our expenses have increased as the price of gas, fertiliser and diesel have gone up,” he told AFP.
Researchers say tea workers – who live in some of the country’s most remote areas – have been systematically exploited by the industry for decades.
“Tea workers are like modern-day slaves,” said Director of the Society for Environment and Human Development Philip Gain, who has written books on tea workers.
“The plantation owners have hijacked the minimum wage authorities and kept the wages some of the lowest in the world.”