Why are tea workers out of the ambit of labour law?
The tea plantation workers (TPWs) in some 60 tea gardens in Sylhet stopped work for a day or two in the beginning of the countrywide lockdown. They ignored the owners' decision to not stop the operation of tea gardens. The planters afforded to be complacent, secure in the knowledge that the tea workers live and work in safe enclaves and there is no risk for them to contract the coronavirus.
The revolting workers did not agree with the owners. They questioned, if the garment workers could afford lockdown holidays, why wouldn't they be given a break as well? Bangladesh Cha Sramik Union (BCSU), the lone union of 130,000 TPWs, started writing to the owners and the government demanding that the tea gardens be brought under lockdown and the workers be given holidays with full pay.
It was at this time when the TPWs were getting confused and restless that the prime minister cleared things up at a video conference with the Deputy Commissioners (DCs) on March 31 that tea workers stay scattered when they pick leaves… and because they stay with nature, there is no chance of contraction so tea gardens can stay operational. If distance is maintained when the leaves are deposited, there should not be problems. And because no one has been infected, there is nothing to worry about. The prime minister said this in response to similar observations made by the DC of Sylhet. The observations of the DC and prime minister are similar to those of Bangladesh Tea Association (BTA) that represents the tea planters.
The tea workers and their union have respect for the prime minister. So from April 1, they went back to work and kept working six days a week ever since.
Now that the garment factories and government offices are reopening, it is unlikely that the planters will pay any heed to BCSU which filed its latest appeal to the owners on April 20 requesting shutdown of the tea gardens with pay.
The coronavirus pandemic has indeed caused unprecedented upheaval around the world including in Bangladesh. It is at this time that the TPWs, more than 90 percent of them non-Bengali, have succumbed to the wish of the planters. From 1939, when commercial tea plantation started in India, the overwhelming majority of TPWs have been non-locals. During the British time, these workers, known as coolies, had lived a life of slavery. Many had been trapped in the hands of coolie-catchers known as arkattis, sirdar and Maistri in India and Kangany in Sri Lanka.
The TPWs and their ancestors have gone through numerous upheavals and shocks during the two World Wars, numerous epidemics, and the independence war. They have always been the silent victims—because they are rootless and dependent on their employers. In independent Bangladesh, they are citizens of the country and free to live anywhere, but the conditions they are entrapped in keep them tied to the tea gardens where they have no land or houses of their own. As survivors living on the fringe, they always submit to the desires of the planters and the state.
Helpless tea workers, hapless trade union
The coronavirus epidemic shows that little has changed for tea workers over time. We no longer call them coolie, but they are not much better off than during the time of the British-India days. They are not to enjoy what other citizens do. They must live in isolation, so they are safe! The planters can do what they want to do with them and the lawmakers and the state guarantee their interest. Is there any evidence to support such allegations? Yes, there are plenty.
The foremost among them is the discrimination in the Bangladesh Labour Act, 2006 with regard to their union. The labour law allows trade union only at the national level for a group of establishments. All tea gardens are considered a group of establishments, so the TPWs can form union only at the national level, and to form a union at least 20 percent of the total workers and 20 percent of the workers from each garden must register! The intricacies of BCSU under the strong influence of the planters and the government make formation of a second union in the tea industry almost impossible. And the consequences are understandably far-reaching.
The tea workers also do not have any casual leave, which is up to 10 days in other industries. When workers in other industries are entitled to a day's earned leave for working 18 days, the tea workers have to work 22 days for earning a day's leave of this kind.
If we look into the violations of the labour law and the labour rules in the tea gardens, the list is much longer. First, the TPWs are not given appointment letter. The labour law stipulates, "No employer shall employ any worker without giving such worker a letter of appointment and every such employed worker shall be provided with an identity card with photograph." No worker in the tea garden has any letter of appointment from planters. "In tea gardens, planters consider Provident Fund papers as letter of appointment," says Tapan Datta, adviser to BCSU, "which can in no way be justified." There are widespread allegations that a worker can be kept as casual for years before she or he is made permanent. A casual worker does not get ration, treatment and holidays with pay.
One area of grave concern is non-payment of gratuity. Imagine a TPW working all their life in a tea garden who gets no gratuity at the end of their service. The planters allegedly blackmail the workers with regard to gratuity. Article 32 of Bangladesh Labour Law stipulates: "A worker occupying a residential accommodation provided by his employer, whose service has been ceased by any means, shall vacate such residential accommodation within a period of sixty days from the date of cessation of employment." The tea workers are tied to the tea gardens. Almost 100 percent of the non-Bengali TPWs have no land and property of their own inside or outside the tea gardens. Where shall they go upon retirement or at the end of service if they have to vacate their residence? Generally, a family member replaces the one who has retired. If one claims gratuity, it may land them in great trouble.
"The last agreement signed between the tea workers' union and the owners' association for 2018 and 2019 makes payment of gratuity obligatory according to the labour law," says Rambhajan Kairi, general secretary of BCSU. "But so far, no retiree or anyone who has lost their job has received gratuity."
Given the 150-year history of the tea gardens and tea workers, their demand that Article 32 of the labour law should not apply for the tea workers has a logic. Moreover, the tea workers demand that the government and the planters consider giving them ownership of the land and houses in their possession.
The tea workers are deprived of five percent of the profit of the companies that is guaranteed by the Labour Act, 2006 (article 234). This share of profit is supposed to be deposited to the workers' participatory fund and workers' welfare fund, which they shall be able to spend based on collective decision. The tea gardens had this provision even before the framing of the current labour act, but the TPWs have remained deprived of company's profit-sharing both in the past and even now.
The labour law and the Labour Rules 2015 provide quite a few other significant facilities to workers that the planters ignore every day. For example, toilets and washing facilities at workplace. In the sections or workplaces of tealeaf pickers where more than 90 percent of the workers are women, there is no toilet or washing facility. Drinking water is also reported to be in short supply. If the planters follow the labour rules (Article 79), they are to appoint one welfare officer in a tea garden employing 500 or more workers. If the number of workers exceeds 2,000, then for every two thousand and the fragmented numbers the planters are obliged to engage one additional welfare officer. The welfare officer has a long list of responsibilities to perform for the wellbeing of both planters and workers.
"We have not seen or heard of any such welfare officer appointed yet," said Rambhajan Kairi. "It is a farce." There are many other legal obligations of the planters towards their workers and their family members with special attention to children, which they ignore. Meanwhile, the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments (DIFE)—one of the key state agencies tasked to ensure implementation of labour law in the tea gardens—helplessly witnesses all these breaches of labour law and labour standard!
The power and influence of the tea planters became evident when the TPWs were forced to work against their will during the lockdown. The helpless TPWs have done a great favour to the planters. But what about the responsibility of the government? It is high time the government obliged the planters/owners to fully implement the labour law and the labour rules in the tea gardens so that the workers are no longer discriminated against and are not compelled to live a life of perpetual hardship.
Philip Gain is a researcher and director of Society for Environment and Human Development (SEHD). Email: firstname.lastname@example.org