Living Conditions of the Tea Workers and the SAARC Social Charter

Photography: Salman Saeed

“We live in place worse than that of the officers’ pets (at the estates). Many of us have only a thin jute mattress to sleep on,” describes a tea worker about her living condition. Living conditions provided to tea workers are generally outrageous and clear infringement of the Bangladesh Constitution. One committment that the SAARC Social Charter sets for the South Asian States is to enable its citizens “satisfy basic human needs and to realise his or her personal dignity, safety and creativity.”

The Social Charter also touches upon the “access to basic education, adequate housing, safe drinking water and sanitation, and primary health care”, which should be guaranteed in legislation, executive and administrative provisions, in addition to ensuring “adequate standard of living, including adequate shelter, food and clothing”. Read the rest of this entry »


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Are there any constitutions to protect the tea workers?

Photography: Salman Saeed

The condition of the forlorn tea workers depict many kinds of abuse, discrimination and deprivation that are very difficult to overcome. There are constitutional safeguards,laws and mechanisms intended to ensure human dignity, but for the tea workers human dignity is only a dream. Their conditions violate the maximum provisions of the Bangladesh Constitution, different instruments, laws and rules that commit social, economic and human dignity. The SAARC Social Charter, in the hands of the South Asian States, upholds the same commitment. It’s implementation is a big challenge indeed.

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Relationship of Tea Workers With Managers

Photography: Salman Saeed.

Social and economic distance of the tea workers with their Bengali supervisors including the managers is much wider. Francis Rolt, a British writer, gives a vivid description of the severe discriminatory conduct of the hierarchy towards the tea workers: “the tea gardens are managed as an extreme hierarchy: the managers live like gods, distant, unapproachable, and incomprehensible. Some even begin to believe that they are gods, that they can do exactly what they like.”

“Managers have anything up to a dozen laborers as their personal, domestic servants. They are made to tie the managers shoe lace, to remind them that they are under managerial control and that they are bound to do whatever they are asked,” writes another British human rights activist, Dan Jones.

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Photography: Salman Saeed.

The tea workers are completely cut off from their origins in India. They can only partly recall the languages of their forefathers. They speak “a sort of distorted Hindi” that passes as a common language on the tea estates. They also speak in Deshali, which is a mixture of Bengali and language of Orissa. Their accents while speaking in Deshali testify their cultural corrosion.

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Photography: Salman Saeed

The tea workers are so much cornered that they depend solely on the companies for food, medicine, accomodations, education, etc. They do not have choices about their life and amenities. That is because they do not have a social standing in Bangladesh.

The only social relationship that exists between the tea workers and the Bengalis is one of business. The Bengalis own majority of the shops in the area. On the weekly holiday,Sunday, some of the tea workers work in Bengali houses. But the Bengalis would hardly allow them into their houses. They treat them as untouchables. Glasses, plates, or other equipment are generally kept separate for the tea workers. However, among themselves whatever their identity or origin, the tea workers maintain quite good relations.

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Tea Workers in Captive Situation

Photography: Salman Saeed

In 1854 when the tea workers (Santals, Oraons,Munda etc.) from different states of India first arrived they each signed a four-year contract that eventually obliged them to remain on the tea gardens for generations. That was the beginning of hard labour, erosion of cultural identity and captivity that never came to an end. Illiterate, they didn’t understand what the document contained when they signed it. This ignorance led to a life full of suffering for them and for their children.

A century later, they still find themselves illiterate. Their poor housing conditions, low wages, long working hours, social discrimination, and de facto restriction on free movement deprive thwm of many basic human needs and rights that every human being must have for personal and societal progress. These conditions make sure that the children of tea workers can do nothing else but become tea workers. Deprived, exploited and alienated the tea workers live an inhumane life.

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Tea-The Industry

Photography: Salman Saeed

Tea is an important export item in Bangladesh.

Bangladesh ranks tenth among the ten largest tea-producing and exporting countries in the world. In the year 2000, the country’s tea production was 1.80% of the 2,939.91 million kg produced worldwide.

Most of the 163 tea estates in Bangladesh are located in the North-eastern region of Bangladesh-Maulvi Bazar, Hobiganj, Sylhet, Brahmanbaria districts. There are a few number of tea estates in Panchagar District and in Chittagong,a South-eastern district.

Owners of tea gardens include both foreign and local companies. While four Sterling companies own 27 estate, Bangladeshi companies and individuals own the rest of the tea gardens. The four foreign companies are James Finlay, Duncan Brothers, Deundi Tea Company and The New Sylhet Tea Estate.

All the 163 tea estates are managed by five different categories of management:

(i) Sterling companies

(ii) National Tea company

(iii) Bangladesh Tea Board

(iv) Bangladeshi Private Limited Companies

(v) Bangladeshi Proprietors

The estates are categorised into three according to their production capacities. They are:

  1. Category A: All the ‘A’ category estates that have the highest productivity belong to the British companies (fully or partially).
  2. Category B: The Bangladeshi government, Bangladeshi tea companies or Bangladeshi individuals own this category of estates.
  3. Category C: The family owned small and low productive estates belong to this category. Wages and working conditions are at their worst in the tea estates under this category.

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