Tea workers routinely ignored during the Covid-19 pandemic
Paban Paul, 38, a tea worker of Rampur Tea Garden in Bahubal upazila (Habiganj district), died of Covid-19 on July 6. Rampur Tea Garden is a furi (division) of Rashidpur Tea Estate, owned by Finlay Tea Co. Ltd. Paban had fever from June 27. On July 1, he started having difficulties in breathing. The following day, he developed severe breathing problems and was taken to Bahubal Upazila Health Complex. According to Paban's family, the upazila health complex could not treat him. It referred him to Habiganj district hospital. However, the Sheikh Hasina Medical College in Habiganj also failed to treat him. He was then admitted to MAG Osmani Medical College in Sylhet the same day (July 2). He got a bed in the general ward. On July 3, he was moved to ICU.
Paban was treated at ICU up to July 6—his condition turned critical and he died at 3:22 pm. His Covid-19 test sample was collected as soon as he was admitted to Osmani. At 4:30 pm on the day he died, it was confirmed that he was Covid positive. A healthy man without any known underlying conditions, Paban Paul is known to be the first reported casualty of Covid-19 in the tea gardens in Habiganj district.
After Paban's death, his family members got tested for Covid-19 too, but none of them were positive. According to Ajoy Singh (24), a nephew of Paban's who accompanied him to hospitals, he checked with the tea garden dispensary regarding Covid-19 tests, but he was told that he should make his own arrangements. The only immediate step taken by the garden management was to offer firewood for Paban's cremation and the funeral meal on August 5 for the family and a few others. The next thing the management is likely to do is recruit Paban's wife, mostly likely as a tea leaf picker in his place. And period! The company has done its duty to Paban's family.
Is it really so simple?
Nripen Paul, joint general secretary of Bangladesh Cha Sramik Union (BCSU), the only trade union for around 100,000 registered workers in Sylhet and Chattogram divisions, believes tea gardens must do more. According to the Bangladesh Labour Rules 2015, the owner of tea gardens must provide "indoor" and "outdoor" treatment to its workers and their family members. Purabi Paul, wife of Paban, reports the family spent Tk 85,000 (including a bribe of Tk 30,000 to secure a ICU bed) for his treatment. Will the owner refund, in full or part, the cost of his treatment? "We do not know how to approach the owner for this," says Purabi, who is now the only breadwinner of the four-member family.
Their ordeal demonstrates just how helpless tea workers are when infected with Covid-19. Most tea workers will testify that the management in any tea garden is least interested in carrying out Covid-19 tests of their workers. Why? According to different sources, owners fear that if tests are carried out, many cases of the coronavirus will be detected, and Covid positive workers will have to be sent into quarantine for at least 14 days with pay. They recognise the risks of Covid-19 in the tea gardens, but are unwilling to bear the associated financial costs.
According to Rambhajan Kairi, an executive adviser of BCSU, the management has, on the other hand, shown interest in vaccination, and in helping workers and their families to register for it. However, on the issue of testing for Covid-19 in the tea gardens, the civil surgeon of Sylhet district, Dr Chowdhury Jalal Uddin Murshed, said, "I wanted to initiate testing booths in the tea gardens, but the expert committee in Dhaka advised me not to do so, because there is a risk that Covid-19 will spread when collecting samples. Like others, the tea workers have to come to sample collection booths at district sadar hospital and upazila health complexes."
Covid-19 tests in government facilities may not sound expensive. At a district or upazila health complex booth, it costs Tk 100. But for a tea worker whose daily cash pay is Tk 120, this is expensive. Also, getting these tests requires travel costs and at least a day off work. Then, if one tests positive, the resulting treatment cost can be far too high for a tea worker to bear.
As a result, those in the tea gardens testing on their own and testing positive are having a very hard time. Hari Das (60) of Rajnagar Tea Estate in Rajnagar upazila (Moulvibazar district) is one such worker, who was a registered worker for 10 years and a casual worker for five years at the manager's bungalow. His family took him to Moulvibazar Sadar Hospital with breathing problems, and he tested positive on July 7. However, because he is no longer a registered worker, he had to face even greater struggles, since he lost his wages for every day he was absent from work.
His family, already in hardship, reportedly spent Tk 13,000 for his treatment, including on oxygen, which he needed for one night. His son Babul Das (22) shared how difficult it was for the family to meet treatment costs, adding "the management has not contributed anything for my father's treatment." The owners very often do not provide medical expenses even to registered workers—an allegation that is widespread in the tea gardens.
Regardless of the many general holidays and lockdowns that have been implemented by the government to control the spread of the coronavirus, the tea gardens have continued operations throughout, including during the current wave of Covid-19 and the most recent lockdown. With a week off for Eid, a strict lockdown began on July 23, when all industries, including garments factories, remained closed. However, the tea gardens were the only exception. The Bangladesh Tea Board in a circular classified tea as "foodstuff", and its production and sale was exempted from the lockdown.
During this period, many started to believe that the tea gardens are a safe haven from the coronavirus. They have been proven wrong. There are allegations that tea workers have been wilfully exposed to Covid-19, given that tea gardens remained fully operational even though safety equipment for tea workers are miserably short in supply and Covid-19 tests for workers and their families are just inadequate. On the one hand, the owners are reluctant about providing tests, and on the other, the workers have a tendency to hide illness unless the symptoms become too explicit due to a fear of losing their daily wages.
We are yet to get a clear picture of the pandemic in the tea gardens, which remain largely isolated. The fear is that the Delta variant has spread into the communities in labour lines. The tea gardens in Assam, close to Sylhet, became a hotbed for Covid-19 related deaths during the second wave of the virus. According to a report in Northeast Today, 105 deaths were reported between April 1 and June 28, 2021 from the tea estates. In the first wave of Covid-19 last year, deaths in the tea gardens of both Assam and Bangladesh were few. However, in the current wave, Covid-19 deaths have dramatically increased.
Against this backdrop, the tea workers and their communities require urgent attention from the state and owners of tea gardens. Massive awareness campaigns, garden level tests for coronavirus, distribution of mask and sanitiser in adequate quantities and proper physical distancing at all stages of tea leaf picking, depositing and processing are some urgent needs in the tea gardens. Tea workers have brought huge profit and comfort to their owners, which includes state agencies that own 17 tea gardens. Now, at this time of crisis, they should treat the tea workers as a priority group for tests and vaccination.
Philip Gain is a researcher and director at the Society for Environment and Human Development (SEHD). Email: email@example.com