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Although the tea industry in Bangladesh has made significant advancements, tea plantation workers still have to deal with several challenges concerning socioeconomic, human rights, and unfair wage issues. They have to bear substandard living circumstances, including inadequate nutrition, healthcare services and education. These workers are persistently underpaid. All stakeholders, including the entrepreneurs and the government, will need to step forward to improve the living standard of the tea plantation workers from the perspectives of the implementation of SDGs in Bangladesh.

These aspects were emphasised at a national dialogue titled ” Why are the Tea Plantation Workers Left Behind in Bangladesh?” hosted by the Citizen’s Platform for SDGs, Bangladesh, in partnership with Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF) and Nagorik Uddyog, held on 23 November 2022, at the BRAC Centre Inn, Dhaka.

The main objective of the dialogue was to highlight the challenges faced by the tea plantation workers and provide a platform to promote their voices to uphold their concerns and interests. The perspectives emerging from the dialogue were intended to provide useful inputs to the policymakers and actors of the industry for their consideration.

The dialogue brought in several tea plantation workers from Moulvibazar and Sylhet and representatives from other stakeholder groups, including Tea Board officials, tea garden owners, officials and exporters, and international development partners.

Dr Debapriya Bhattacharya, Convenor of the Citizen’s Platform for SDGs, Bangladesh and Distinguished Fellow, Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) chaired the session and delivered the context setting introduction. He highlighted the fact that one of the guiding principles of the global agenda is that no one should be left behind. But tea workers are one of the most backward communities in Bangladesh. He assured that the Citizen’s Platform will move forward with the information and recommendations obtained from this dialogue and will try to reflect it in the national policy.

Vice Principal Dr Md. Abdus Shahid, MP, Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Estimates and a Member of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Ministry of Finance, was present as the Chief Guest of the dialogue. He mentioned that in order to solve the problem of tea plantation workers, a sincere relationship between owners and workers should be developed. He said that most of the plight of tea plantation workers has already been mentioned in the government manifesto. He believes that various steps have been taken by the government to improve their standard of living. He assured that in the upcoming election manifesto, voicing the rights of tea plantation workers will be a significant area, and initiatives will be taken in this regard. He said that everyone should come forward to face the challenges of the LDC transition, and the tea workers should come forward enthusiastically to claim their rights for the country’s overall development.

Mr Hafiz Ahmed Majumder, MP, Member, Parliamentary Standing Committee on Ministry of Public Administration attended the dialogue as the Special Guest. He mentioned that the Tea Workers Union is the largest union in Bangladesh which has been working to alleviate the plight of workers. He said that the tea workers’ standard of living is gradually increasing, and he expects it to increase further in the future. He urged the union to come forward to alleviate the plight of the workers. He also said that the tea workers should not isolate themselves. They should come forward and involve themselves more in the field of education and culture.

Ms Gwyn Lewis, United Nations Resident Coordinator in Bangladesh and Mr Mohammed Nurullah Nuri, Joint Secretary, Member (Finance & Trade) (Additional Charge), Member (Research & Development), Bangladesh Tea Board, Government of Bangladesh were present as the Guests of Honor at the dialogue.

Ms Gwyn Lewis said that it is important that we look into the framework of the sustainable development goals and ensure that no one is left behind. We should look at the development issues of tea plantation workers from the historical marginalisation perspectives and address the structural and market challenges. We will need the government’s engagement on this and also make sure that the market can work to help the industry grow. She also mentioned that the UN looks forward to investing in the development issues of tea plantation workers.

Mr Zakir Hossain, Chief Executive, Nagorik Uddyog, highlighted the point that despite having quota privileges, the tea workers fail to join the system because they do not have sufficient opportunities to fulfil the admission or employment criteria. In terms of education, medical care, safe water, and housing, tea workers are lagging compared to other communities. According to statistics, about 74 per cent of tea plantation workers are below the poverty line. They do not get enough benefits in terms of health, while pregnant mothers do not get enough nutrition. He said that to ensure the rights of these people, more changes and inclusion of these issues are needed in government policy.

Mr Tuomo Poutiainen, Country Director, ILO Bangladesh, said there had been solid negotiations between the trade unions and the employers to find solutions together over the years. We must acknowledge the fact that everybody may not have the opportunity to maintain that type of bilateral talk, and for that, we need to include representative organisations at the table discussions at the same time. I think one of the issues we really need to investigate is how the tea garden community members, along with the workers, be able to access the right kind of sort of protection services which is their right. It is important to take care of the broader holistic view of this sector. Besides, I think the government has a certain role to play, such as looking at the modernisation of the financing and addressing those challenges of looking at the working conditions and wages and productivity and, more broadly, towards community development.

Mr Razequzzaman Ratan, President, Socialist Labour Front, urged that we must create a cultural atmosphere for the children of the tea workers so that they do not feel discriminatory, which can be counted as a social responsibility of the citizens. He also mentioned that although the price of tea has increased in the market, the price of tea in the auction is still very low. In order to control this inequality, the state should take upon the duty to set wages, and the employers should take upon the responsibility to strictly follow them.

Ms Khairun Akhtar, President, Bangladesh Cha Kanya Nari Sangthan, mentioned that raising wages for the tea workers would not be helpful if the high increase in the price of goods is not adjusted. Ambulance is not provided to tea workers in case of illness, and at the same time, only four months of maternity leave is given to expectant mothers, which is a direct discriminatory practice. On the other hand, there are no toilet facilities in the tea garden for women, and they often suffer from diseases due to using unhygienic sanitary products. She also mentioned the lack of land rights for tea plantation workers and educated unemployment.

A tea worker’s son, who was present at the dialogue, said that tea plantation workers are still considered slaves, and the owners consider themselves masters, due to which the workers cannot get out of the bond of slavery. He demanded that the dividends of the tea companies should be given to the workers. According to one daughter of a tea worker, women involved in tea plantations are victims of various violence, which in most cases remain unknown. She expressed hope that more importance will be given in the future towards ensuring the rights of these women.

In his concluding remarks, Professor Mustafizur Rahman, Distinguished Fellow, CPD said not only the owners but also the state has the responsibility to protect the rights of the tea workers. Firstly, the matter should be looked at from the point of view of overall industrialisation. The impact of the global climate on tea plantations and the effectiveness of related policies should be investigated. Secondly, we should work to ensure quality education and quality. Finally, the tea workers should be brought into the national mainstream, and an opportunity should be created to present their demands on a larger scale ahead of the upcoming elections.

To conclude, Dr Debapriya thanked everyone and highlighted three major areas from the discussion. He said that this dialogue was mainly organised to make the plights of tea workers visible. He hopes to sustain the tea industry and improve the conditions of the workers by strengthening the relationship between owners and workers and reducing their psychological distance. Above all, he said that the plight of the tea workers should be made visible and empowered so that they can improve their condition through proper utilisation of all opportunities.

Several prominent experts contributed to the dialogue, including Mr Tahsin Ahmed Choudhury, Committee Member, Bangladesh Tea Association, Chief Operating Officer, Finlay Limited, Mr Golam Mostafa, Chief Operating Officer, Ispahani Group of Tea Estate, Mr Rambhajan Kairi, General Secretary, Bangladesh Cha Sramik Union, Mr. Md. Habibur Rahman, General Secretary, Bangladesh Tea Estate Staff Association.