Tea garden workers: Living like slaves for 175 years

Imagine that you and your ancestors have been living in an area for 175 years; but you don't have any right to own a land. Imagine that after living in an area for so many years, you cannot even sell a tree that you planted without the permission of the 'authority'.

Imagine, your children can not go to proper schools. Your pay is so poor that it can hardly feed your family. But you cannot say much because as a worker, you work under an exclusive labour law that is not applicable for any other profession.

This is the story of almost any tea garden worker in the country.

"We have no land right on this land. If I plant a tree, I can't cut it without the signature of manager," said tea garden worker Rajkumari Bin, at the Shamsher Nagar tea estate in Srimangal.

She and the other tea workers are all decedents of minority communities from South India, Bihar, Orissa and even Uttar Pradesh.

Their ancestors were brought here nearly 175 years ago by the then British Raj who treated them like slaves. The British rulers have left long ago and Bangladesh emerged as an independent nation. But till today, they are still not treated like citizens of the country.

Garden workers are treated under a discriminatory labour law that the British Raj had introduced across the sub-continent.

"The maternity leave for a tea garden worker is four months. But other workers get six months maternity leave," says Sitaram Bin, a member of tea garden workers' union and Shamsher Nagar UP member, "this is clear case of discrimination in the labour law in the same country."

The workers are very poorly paid. They get much lower wages than the Indian tea workers. Their wage rate is daily 85 taka now which is not sufficient to maintain their livelihood—especially when the areas around a tea estate do not offer other job opportunities.

"We are 10 members living together in our family, how can we survive with this meagre 85 taka?" asks worker Rajkumari Bin.  

A worker is allotted a single room by the estate. A single room is crowded with people of different ages of the family.  

Cattle or domesticated animals and human beings are often seen living together under one roof. This is also the common scenario of living condition among the tea garden workers.

The education and health condition of the tea garden workers are in a poor state as well. There is no primary school even in the government owned National Tea Company's gardens.

The working condition of garden workers is dismal. Besides, they are socially excluded, overwhelmingly illiterate, deprived and disconnected.

The condition of the workers stands as a stark contrast to that of the country's tea estates—which are among the most beautiful places to visit because of the lush green landscape, the silence and the hilly terrain.