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Dhaka Tribune

The history and the economic benefit of Bangladesh's tea industry

Workers' dilemmas plague their livelihoods, not to mention their lives

Update : 18 Oct 2022, 04:38 PM

According to the Bangladesh Tea Board (BTB), tea cultivation began in Assam and adjacent areas of India in the early 1800s.

In continuation, during British Colonialism, the land was allocated in 1828 for tea plantation on the banks of Karnaphuli river in Chittagong of Bangladesh.

However, tea cultivation was delayed due to various reasons.

 Again, in 1840, a tea garden was established in the area adjacent to the present Chittagong Club in the city, known as "Kundder Bagan."

Nevertheless, this garden also disappeared soon after its establishment.

Again, between 1847 and 1854, near the airport road of Sylhet city, the Malnichhara tea plantation was established.

Originally, Malnichrai was the first commercial tea garden in Bangladesh.

Before independence, tea was grown in only two districts in Bangladesh, one in Sylhet district, known as Surma Valley and the other in Chittagong district, known as Halda Valley.

Currently, the Surma Valley of Greater Sylhet is bifurcated into six valleys: Laskarpur Valley, Balishira Valley, Manu-Dalai Valley, Long Valley and North Sylhet Valley.

Halda Valley has been made Chittagong Valley.

In 1973, the government updated Bangladesh Tea Research Station to a full-fledged tea research institute.

Currently, it is known as Bangladesh Tea Research Institute (BTRI.)

There are several tea companies in Bangladesh, including Ispahani, Finley, Ceylon, National, Kaji and Kaji, Halda Valley, Bengal and Danish tea.

According to the Tea Traders Association of Bangladesh, the climate of Bangladesh is very supportive of tea plantations.

The seasonal nature of rainfall and temperature results in an uneven pattern of tea production.

Most of the estates are located on the valley side.

Still, perhaps 25% of the area runs into the waterlogged valley floor, where tea can only be maintained if the land is drained and kept free of water backup from rice cultivation downstream.

The soil of Bangladesh has two main geological formations, and they both have a sedimentary origin.

The first and the older of the two form the hills and consist of quartzite gravels, ferruginous gravels and sandstones, siltstones and clays with outcrops of laterite and occasional lignite.

However, over time, it has been affected by the transformation of the soil of the places.

 On the other hand, the younger formations, still being deposited from the lowlands and the Himalayas and parts of the hills of Manipur and Maiz districts, consist of sand, silt and clay brought down by the rapid (kharasrota) river system.

Interestingly, old formations acidify iron-rich soils.

On the other hand, younger shapes with low intrinsic nutrient values will provide sufficient calcium to naturally fertile soils but are prone to waterlogging in low-lying areas.

 

Production

 Our research through the Tea Board of Bangladesh suggests that tea production in 1970 was 31.38 million kg.

A total of 85.05 million kg of tea was produced in 2016, 82.12 million kg in 2018 and a record amount of 96.07 kg in 2019 and 86.39 million kg in 2020.

Also, a record 2.17 million kg of tea was exported in 2020.

If this trend continues, there will be no need to import tea in the future, but the export area will expand.

Export

According to the Observatory of Economic Complexity (OEC), in 2020, Bangladesh exported $4.33 million worth of tea, securing it the 56th largest tea exporter in the world.

Tea was the 133rd most shipped product in Bangladesh in 2020.

Bangladesh has exported tea to Pakistan ($2.27 million), United Arab Emirates ($1.15 million), the United States ($625,000), Kuwait ($67,000), and Canada ($63,500.)

Import

 According to OEC, Bangladesh also imported tea worth $925,000, becoming the 149th largest tea importer in the world in 2020.

In the same year, tea was Bangladesh's 822nd imported product.

Bangladesh imports tea (e.g., Green and Herbal Teas) mainly from Kenya ($391,000), India ($128,000), Singapore ($126,000), China ($111,000), and United Arab Emirates ($94,400).

Our further research through OEC denotes that the fastest growing export markets for Bangladesh tea between 2019 and 2020 were Pakistan ($1.65 million), United Arab Emirates ($144,000), and Canada ($28,600.)

On the other hand, the fastest growing import markets for Bangladesh tea between 2019 and 2020 are Singapore ($109,000), the United States ($6,870), and Poland ($1.51k).

Global competitors

OEC report further shows that in 2019, the main competitors of tea exporters in Bangladesh were: China ($1.75 billion), Sri Lanka ($1.27 billion), and Kenya ($1.2 billion.)

On the other hand, in 2019, the main competitors of tea importers in Bangladesh were: Pakistan ($646 million), the United States ($473 million), and Russia ($413 million).

Number of tea gardens

 According to the Tea Board of Bangladesh, in 1970, the number of tea gardens in Bangladesh was 150; currently, the number of tea gardens is 167.

In addition, there are two tea auction centres in Bangladesh (Chittagong and Srimangal Auction Centre.)

However, to stop importing tea and increase exports, since 2002, small-scale tea plantations have been started in Panchagarh, Lalmonirhat, Thakurgaon, Nilphamari, Dinajpur and Bandarban districts of Chittagong Hill Tracts and have achieved great success under various schemes undertaken by the Tea Board of Bangladesh.

Comparison and productivity

Furthermore, since workers are not paid a living wage, they tend to neglect, which reduces the total quality and amount of production.

Therefore, it is a genuine appeal of the tea garden owners to increase their daily wages.

However, where RMG (ready-made garment) workers' monthly income is Tk8,000 to Tk9,000, a tea labourer's monthly income is only between Tk2,500 to Tk3,500.

As a result, this industry faces enormous competition in the international market.

Workers' dilemma

Over the past 170 years, successive governments of the British, West Pakistan and Bangladesh have paid little attention to improving the livelihoods of tea plantation workers.

Several studies conducted by the ILO and the UN show that women and child tea plantation workers and their families lack advanced education and skills and live with limited facilities that a state citizen usually requires in Bangladesh.

As a result, tea plantation workers are also considered bonded labourers as they fall into a vicious cycle of deprivation and exploitation.

The vast majority of the country's tea plantation workers are descendants of British immigrants from Assam, India.

Marginal tea plantation workers are socially and economically disadvantaged in Bangladesh and therefore have little opportunity to find alternative work.

This means they have no choice but to opt for low-paid work in the tea plantations of Bangladesh and be grossly exploited.

Socially, they live and work on tea plantations and rarely interact with the mainstream population, who look down on them because they are generally from lower caste backgrounds.

Since they came from the poorer sections of society and were entitled as labourers, they also did not have proper property rights in Bangladesh.

Only permanent employers set aside some abandoned land for residence and agriculture where they can grow limited crops for their livelihood.

 The employer provides houses to the workers where a worker gets a home made of mud, bamboo and sun grass.

Their house has only two rooms with a kitchen and no windows.

Their living conditions are unsanitary, wretched, and unsatisfactory.

Also, they are unaware of family planning, and the infant mortality rate is high due to malnutrition problems; hence their birth rate is also high.

So, the workers live in this house with their four or five children, sometimes with their cattle.

But they have no bed. Instead, they sleep on handmade jute mats on the floor.

Inadequate latrine facilities and insufficient drinking water during the rainy season put their lives in more dire straits.

However, they drink water from canals far away from their homes during the dry season.

In addition, some tube wells are free of arsenic contamination but high in iron.

This situation increases the health risk of pregnant women and unborn babies.

Tea plantation workers use open spaces for defecation, child malnutrition, respiratory and intestinal diseases, diarrhea and fever and serious human rights violations.

Health benefits are deplorable. Most of them rely on Ayurvedic treatment.

Children of tea plantation workers go to primary school but cannot continue their education because they cannot afford the cost of education.

Most of their daughters get married early, and their sons start working as tea workers.

Employers do not provide any facilities for the education of tea workers because they do not want to permanently lose cheap labour as a worker's child will traditionally become a worker.

Their salary is not enough to buy food for themselves, so they cannot invest in education, resulting in low income.

Tea garden workers are suffering from severe malnutrition.

Their salary is not enough to buy food for the whole family.

Most of them are dependent on rice from rations and vegetables.

Sometimes they catch fish from rivers and canals.

They can buy lentils weekly, usually on their paydays.

They rarely consume meat, except for raising poultry or their domesticated cattle.

Female tea plantation workers were found to be underweight.

 Payment systems in tea gardens (especially for leaf pickers) encourage modern slavery: workers have to reach a daily target (usually 23 kg), and if they fall short, their wages are cut.

Thus, many tea plantation workers work long hours to meet the target.

In addition, while the target is extensive, other family members (e.g. children) often get involved in the work at the tea plantations to meet the targets usually set for their parents.

Weak enforcement of labour legislation: Tea garden workers are covered by labour legislation, notably the Bangladesh Labour Act 2006 (amended in 2013), which provides significant rights.

However, tea workers have fewer rights than workers in other sectors with regard to casual and earned leave.

The more substantial issue is the lack of enforcement of labour rights.

Ineffectual union representation: Tea garden workers used to be represented by several unions, but these were rendered ineffective by infightings.

There is now just one major union for tea workers, but this is hampered by a lack of capacity, resources and union leaders being 'bought off' by tea garden owners.

Wages, livelihood, education, health, sickness, closed and abandoned tea plantations, crop yield issues, labour issues, frequent violence around the tea estates, and strikes are burning issues in the tea sector in Bangladesh.

In 2013, Bangladeshi tea workers protested for a pay hike of Tk120 (about $1.25) per day.

During this period, many things have changed in Bangladesh except their livelihood.

Several national and international media (e.g., Aljazeera) highlighted the tea workers' agitation that they demonstrated for two weeks in August 2022 in the streets of the nation.

About 150,000 tea garden workers, among the lowest paid in the country, turned themselves into the streets for a strike.

They have demanded an increase in daily wages amid rising inflation.

Tea workers' concern was to increase their daily wages (from Tk120 or about US$1.25) to Tk300 or US$3.15 a day) -- it was not enough to buy food, let alone other necessities like health and education.

Tea plantation workers have limited opportunities to integrate with the majority of the community and face many difficulties in exploring livelihood options outside the tea plantations.

Therefore, tea plantation workers aspire for the state to resolve their cases with care and translate its commitment to them by providing political, social and humanitarian protection.

Tea workers' demand is entirely rational these days; they can't even afford this amount of coarse rice and a litre of edible oil for their families.

The tea workers' strike has become a rallying point for many in the country of approximately 170 million people, as rising inflation and high food prices fuel widespread frustration over low wages.

Due to the ongoing protest of tea workers in Bangladesh, the Prime Minister directed tea estate owners to increase the daily wages of tea workers from Tk120 to Tk170, which is good.

However, workers still show dissatisfaction with this rise in wages as they think it will not be helpful to maintain their livelihoods in the country's current fast-rising inflation and predicted economic recession in the coming years.

Recommendations

After analyzing the current situation of tea plantation workers in Bangladesh, this article aims to provide some recommendations to concerned groups, including tea workers in Bangladesh.

For example, to improve the living conditions of tea plantation workers, they (tea plantation workers) must be aware of their fundamental rights protected by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the United Nations.

Notably, they must be aware of the National Labour Act 2006 (amended in 2013), where the welfare of tea plantation workers has been included in specific clauses (e.g., Chapter VIII, under Welfare Clauses 95, 96 and 97.)

Moreover, tea plantation workers should unite to form a worker-friendly union to protect their fundamental labour rights.

Significantly, tea plantation workers must raise their children with education and other social awareness to escape the obligation of bonded labourers.

The government and tea estate owners and corporations should ensure that the Labour Act 2006 (amended in 2013) is respected and, mainly, the working rights clauses of tea plantation workers are well implemented in the Act.

Other benefits for workers, including plucking bonus (extra tea leaf picking facility), festival bonus, earned leave and sick leave allowance, provident fund, ration card and retirement benefits, will also be increased immediately with further adjustments of the wages Tk300.

Importantly, it is the responsibility of the government and the tea plantation owners to provide the workers with proper education, health services, social security, decent housing, drinking water and other basic amenities.

Furthermore, it is essential to ensure the health and safety of tea plantation workers by providing them with better work clothes, including suitable hats, shoes, hand gloves and other necessary gear to protect them from health hazards.

The government is committed to building a digital Bangladesh and transforming the lives of the poor, marginalized and indegenous groups.

However, tea plantation workers are not only poor but also a marginalized group particularly disadvantaged in captivity, disregarding the government's commitments.

In addition, low wage rates and unhealthy living conditions adversely affect production, reducing the government's and other companies' total revenue because tea workers in Bangladesh are less productive than their counterparts.

As a result, there is no improvement in the daily life of garden workers year after year.

However, there are several other issues that the government immediately requires addressing in the tea sector in Bangladesh.

For example, high production costs, old varieties and aging tea gardens, legal problems, and weak infrastructure around the parks. The minimum wage is a reason for the poor performance of the tea industry sector in Bangladesh.

In addition, unskilled labour, lack of training, and poor health and nutrition are significant reasons for the low productivity of the workers.

Thus, to be competitive and to increase the global market share for Bangladeshi tea, it is essential for the government and tea estate companies to solve all these problems discussed above immediately.

 

Special thanks to Sujana Chowdhury, research assistant, who lives in the UK.

 

ASM Anam Ullah is an Australian academic and human rights activist. Mamta Chowdhury is a senior lecturer at Western Sydney University in Australia

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