Coronavirus Pandemic: Tea workers exposed to high risk
About five lakh people living and working in 163 tea gardens in the country seem vulnerable during the ongoing spread of coronavirus as they often come in close contacts.
"There is no sanitizer, no soap, no clean water where tea leaves are plucked."
We have to respond to the call of nature in the open as there is no latrine nearby. Afterwards, we have to use water from the dirty canals running through the tea garden," said Binota Ghatuar, 45, a woman tea worker at Kalighat tea garden in Sreemangal upazila of Moulvibazar.
"Our houses are close together. A large number of tea workers bathe in the same river," she said.
Mithun Kurmi, president of Uttaran Bangladesh, said the deputy commissioner (DC) of Moulvibazar has instructed the tea garden authorities to take necessary measures to keep tea workers safe from the risk of coronavirus infection.
"While the tea workers remain in safe distances while working in the garden, they stay together for much of the time in the afternoon when they take their lunch with tea leaves. Besides, hygiene rules are hardly followed. It poses the risk of coronavirus infection," he said.
Tea worker Asha Ornal, joint secretary of Shamshernagar Tea Garden Panchayet Committee said, "Everything in the town is closed. We do not understand who is healthy or who is sick."
"I met with the tea garden manager on Friday morning and talked about different laws. We have closed the garden at our own initiative," said Ornal.
"We, 34 members of eight families, live in six houses in a small space. We live together with our cows and goats," said 45-year-old Santosh Rally, a female worker at Shamshernagar tea garden in Moulvibazar's Kamalganj upazila.
Faruq Mahmud Chowdhury, president of Sushasoner Jonno Nagorik's Sylhet chapter, told this correspondent, densely populated living quarters, malnutrition, lack of awareness, unhygienic living conditions and consequent weak immunity compound the risk of coronavirus infection among tea workers.
He alleged that neither the government nor the tea companies have taken realistic steps in this regard.
About five lakh tea garden people including one lakh permanent tea workers in 163 tea gardens of the country are facing the risk of coronavirus infection, said Pankaj Kondo, vice president of Bangladesh Cha Sramik Union.
"Workers of a tea garden stopped their work from Friday and five others from Saturday although the authorities are yet to take decision. We demand suspension of work at all tea gardens to prevent the spread of the coronavirus," he added.
AKM Rafiqul Haque, acting director of Project Development Unit (PDU) of Bangladesh Tea Board Research Institute, said tea workers usually stay in the remote area. But if they come in contact with the people of the town, there will be risk.
Contacted, Moulvibazar Deputy Commissioner Nazia Shirin said legal action will be taken if the instructions regarding coronavirus prevention is violated by anybody.
Dr Philip Gain, researcher and director of Society for Environment and Human Development, told this correspondent, "Tea gardens workers work in groups. There is no facilities like hand washing, sanitizers, supply of pure water for the tea workers in their workplaces. Besides, sale of tea is already suspended. And so, it is very important to close tea gardens for saving the workers from coronavirus."
Meanwhile, the authorities in India's Assam, bordering Sylhet region, have imposed lockdown in 850 tea gardens there from March 24 to March 31, he said.
GM Shiblee, chairman of Sylhet branch in Bangladesh Cha Sangsad, the tea garden owners' association, told this correspondent, "Tea workers are watering in the tea plants and repairing their thatched houses in this time ahead of the rains. Besides, if we close the tea gardens, temporary workers will be deprived of benefits."
Shah Alam, chairman of Bangladesh Cha Sangsad, said, "We are following government rules. We are maintaining social distance and following the official instructions regarding the tea gardens."