Despite a number of measures taken in recent years by the government and garden owners to improve the working environment and rights of the labourers, the living conditions of tea workers in the country is still not satisfactory. Majority of the tea plantation workers in the country are being deprived of proper wages and their basic rights, mainly because of legal bottlenecks and irregularities in government monitoring agencies, revealed in a study of Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB).
With an aim to identify governance challenges regarding working environment and workers' rights in tea gardens, the findings of the study titled “Working Environment and Workers' Rights in Tea Gardens: Governance Challenges and Way Forward” were unveiled in a Press Conference on 18 December 2018 at TIB Dhaka office where TIB Executive Director Dr. Iftekharuzzaman, Adviser Executive Management Professor Dr. Sumaiya Khair, Director-Research & Policy Mohammad Rafiqul Hassan were present. Programme Manager Dipu Roy of Research & Policy division, TIB presented the research findings and recommendations of the report. Deputy Programme Manager Md. Golam Mostofa and Assistant Programme Manager Md. Rabiul Islam of TIB, the other two members of the research team were also present at the event.
Applying both qualitative and quantitative research method, the study was conducted from August 2017 to August 2018. The research data derived from the direct interview of 1,911 permanent tea workers of 64 gardens along with key informant interview and Focus Group Discussion.
The study found that the highest monthly wage of a tea workers is Tk 5,231 with all allowances included, which is lower than any other sector in Bangladesh. A tea worker gets Tk 102 as daily wage as per the latest agreement between tea workers and garden owners, while non-permanent workers get less than their permanent peers. The survey also found that none of the garden authority pay double for overtime, even though this is stipulated in a provision of labour law. The research showed that 11.6 percent of permanent workers were left out of the provident fund facility.
During the investigation of working environment of the tea gardens, the research found that no gardens have tube wells or any permanent system for availing drinking water as well as an adequate number of toilets for workers. Besides, 57 percent tea workers claimed that the garden authorities do not provide any kind of protection materials like mask, gloves, shoes, glass etc. during spreading pesticides.
Although tea garden owners are supposed to provide accommodation for each tea worker and their family, 32,299 permanent and temporary labourers do not have a separate home to live in as per the information of Bangladesh Tea Board. Furthermore, some houses provided by owners are constructed of wood and tin, in most cases without doors, windows or fences. In 90.6 percent of the cases, a labourer gets only one room where he has to stay with other family members including parents, siblings, wife, and children and even with the cattle.
When it comes to electricity, some garden owners do not even make connections available in workers' houses. The situation prompted 27.9 percent of workers to depend on kerosene light for their houses. Regarding healthcare, the research says 11 of the 64 gardens did not set up any health centre or dispensary. Around 61.7 percent of workers said they had to purchase medicine from outside the gardens while 79.1 percent said owners did not provide the money.
The research also revealed that the tea workers cannot put on any form of headwear in front of the garden managers, assistant managers and heads of panchayets (village councils). Sometimes people of these positions even order the tea workers to take off their shoes.
The Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments is supposed to conduct investigations to ensure labour rights but they are involved in corruption and so deprivation of tea workers continue. Despite some progress made in recent years, tea workers still cannot enjoy their basic rights, Dr. Iftekharuzzaman said. Considering overall circumstances, wages offered to the tea plantation workers are the lowest compared to other sectors. Tea estate workers are deprived of basic needs like education, healthcare and residential facility, though the sector is a vital part of the Bangladesh's economy, he added.
The nine-point recommendations made by the study includes, introduction of a logical, fair and compatible wage structure with other sectors by the government and garden authorities and review of it in every two years in accordance with the market price; ensure education, sanitation, group insurance, gratuity, wages, welfare fund and drinking water for the workers in line with labour law; renew of the bilateral agreement between the workers and the garden authority before one month of its expire; introduction of a both side display digital leaf weighing machine and provision of tea leaves-weighing and wage distribution duty to different people; digitalization of Provident Fund Office activities and initiatives to inform workers about monthly instalments through mobile sms or any easy access medium; distribution of yearly Provident Fund Statement to workers; increase the number of inspection by the officials of DIG Office and Department of Inspection of Factories and Establishments and provision of sending a copy of the inspection report to the labour union along with garden authorities; ensure free education for all the child of tea garden workers' by implementing universal government education policy and ensure modern health facilities for all workers; prompt implementation of 'Roadmap to improve tea industry’ with the participation of all stakeholders, including the Tea Association of Bangladesh.