Tea is the second-largest cash crop in Bangladesh. According to the Bangladesh Tea Board, there are 167 commercial tea estates with a total area of 2,79,506.88 acres. In 2021, Bangladesh produced the highest-ever 96.5 million kg of tea and earned 180.57 million US dollars by globally exporting 680,000 kg of tea. The people directly contributing to this grandeur are the tea plantation workers. Yet they remain one of the most marginalized communities in Bangladesh.

The history of tea plantation workers dates back to the British regime. The first group of tea workers migrated from different famine-stricken parts of India to Bangladesh. The indentured migration was fueled by labourers’ desire to escape domestic socio-economic oppression and aspiration for a better future. Indentured migration was similar to trading slaves as their freedom was determined by the authorities. Children of slave mothers were frequently assigned to the status of a slave in the colonies.[1] Similarly, tea workers were brought to Bangladesh by British lords but it is their descendants who are currently employed in the tea gardens in secluded and confined locations with minimal pay, few educational prospects, inadequate food, terrible housing, and medical care.

The planters sought to create a permanent reliant and subordinate workforce. This ruthless yet effective divide-and-rule system developed by the colonial lords worked well in the plantations establishing a subservient, dependent, and  permanent workforce, divided among themselves and completely cut off from the surrounding community. As they migrated from different parts of India, their languages, beliefs, religions, and traditions were different from each other and mainstream society. Thus, it was incredibly challenging for them to converse with one another, let alone try to organize to achieve rights.[2] Even now, they are isolated from mainstream society because of the barriers in language, overwhelming illiteracy, geography, and ethnic background. Their options are constrained, their life choices are compromised, and their social standing is undermined. All these factors contribute to the systemic exploitation, and marginalization of tea workers.[3]

In Bangladesh, a variety of legislative measures have been established to safeguard the rights of tea plantation workers.[4] The majority of these laws were repealed and replaced by the Bangladesh Labour Act, 2006 (BLA) and the Tea Act, 2016. The BLA was passed for the entire labour force and applies to tea workers as well. The government made the Labour Rules,2015 by dint of the power given by section 351 of the BLA 2006. However, there are several problems within the law itself.

The first confusion arises in determining the category in which the tea plantation workers belong. The BLA defines a tea plantation simply as any land used to grow tea and includes tea factories but doesn’t define tea workers. According to Section 2(40) of the BLA, a plantation is any place where rubber, coffee, or tea is grown and/or protected. Plantations are included in the inclusive definition of an industrial establishment provided in Section 2(61).  Thus, the tea plantations can be regarded as part of the industrial establishment including the tea plantation workers in the category of industrial workers. However, they have been mentioned throughout the Act in many instances distinct from the industrial workers and treated specifically as tea workers.

For instance, Section 115 of BLA specifically states that each employee is entitled to 10 days of paid casual leave every year. However, the Act disallows tea plantation workers from taking such time off. While employees in other businesses are entitled to 1 day of leave every 18 days annually, tea workers are only entitled to 1 day of leave every 22 days. They are thus handled differently inside the Act, which is against both Article 26 of the ICCPR and Article 27 of the Constitution of Bangladesh.

Apart from the express differential treatment in the Act, the tea plantation workers’ minimum wage rate is different from that of the industrial workers and other labourers which sets them on a different footing than other workers whose rights are protected under BLA.

The minimum wage means the minimum amount of remuneration that can’t be reduced by collective agreement or individual contract. Chapter XI of the BLA, 2006 makes the government responsible for establishing the Minimum Wage Board. Section 139 of the BLA, 2006 allows the government to instruct the wage board to recommend a minimum rate of wages for a particular industry if deemed necessary. Employers, workers, or both may petition the government to determine the industry’s minimum wage. Upon receipt of a recommendation from the wage board, the government may announce the minimum wage through publication in the official gazette.

Section 140 states that the minimum wage rate shall be final and not be questioned before any court or authority. It has the force of law and shall be re-fixed every 5 years under the direction of the government. This minimum rate is binding on both, workers and employers. But such minimum wage shall not prejudice any worker’s right to higher wages. It can be deduced from the rules that the government is obligated by law to establish a wage board, but that minimum wage-fixing process is also problematic. The Act expressly prohibits questioning the rate fixed by the government in a court of law.

Interestingly, the wages of tea workers are fixed based on the memorandum of agreement signed between the employer’s representative and the Bangladesh Tea Association, and the tea plantation workers represented by the Cha Sramik Union. The agreement is generally fixed for two years. Thus, the wage board doesn’t fix the minimum wage of the tea workers; the agreement does.

The workers get their weekly pay based on their daily performance. They need to pluck around 23 to 24 kg leaves per day and if they fail to achieve such a target, remuneration is cut proportionately. Such a system of completing targets daily requires them to work more to earn such a  disproportionately low amount of wage.[5]

The minimum wage fixed by the government in tea gardens has been really low consistently for years. The Bangladesh Tea Association (BTA), an organization of tea garden owners, and the Bangladesh Tea Workers’ Union (BTWU) came to an agreement in October 2020 regarding the wage. The agreement stipulated that the pay of the tea workers would be revised every two years. Therefore, a raise in their pay was expected in January 2021. However, the National Wage Board (NWB) had recommended that the BTA and the BTWU should decide on wages and other matters every three years which has essentially given the BTA the scope to raise wages even slower than usual.[6] However, the BTS did not take any action to put the agreement into effect, resulting in a strike by tea workers. In their strike, they demanded 300 taka wages but the wage was fixed at 170 takas by the Prime Minister.

The Minimum Wage Fixing Convention, 1970, considers the needs of workers, the general level of wages, the cost of living, social security benefits, and the relative living standards of other social groups, economic factors such as inflation shall be considered in determining the level of minimum wages, to the extent possible and appropriate in light of national conditions. Bangladesh ratified most of the fundamental instruments of ILO, excluding instruments regarding the minimum wage. Thus, the responsibility to protect worker rights remains primarily national. The reluctance of the state to take any international obligation in this matter indicates the lack of aspiration to preserve minority labour rights.

It is often argued that the tea workers get facilities such as housing, rations, etc which justify the low wage. Employers are required by law to provide certain facilities for tea workers. For instance, Schedule 5.7 of the Labour Rules, 2015 states the standard of housing to be delivered to tea workers. It mentions requirements such as drinking water, maintenance of the houses, sufficient lighting, access to the residential areas, properly maintained sewerage system, covering of the toilets with necessary door locks, and, the establishment of cooperatives near the housing areas for workers to get daily essentials.  Schedule 5.4 of the Labour Rules read with Section 95 of BLA, 2006 puts the duty upon the employers to ensure education facilities for the children of the tea workers. Since tea plantations’ work necessitates the workers to live near or inside the plantation area with minimum pay, isolated from mainstream society, it is understandable why a heavy-duty burden falls upon the employers to ensure proper facilities.

It is intelligible that providing these facilities is the legal obligation of the employers and the rights of the tea workers. The right to a reasonable wage and the right to facilities are co-existent in the Act. The workers are entitled to both of these rights at the same time. Thus, ensuring one right can’t justify the violation of another. Inadequate wages, along with minimal facilities can work as a method of exploitation. As the tea workers are isolated from mainstream society, their dependency on the garden authorities for basic needs binds them to this profession. Their freedom to choose a profession freely becomes more restrained as their wage doesn’t meet their need. As their income is insufficient to cover their basic requirements, they are trapped in an ongoing cycle of exploitation. Therefore, a fair salary is required to reduce the exploitation of tea workers, allowing them to select their careers and work with dignity. If minimal facilities and a fair wage are provided, it is possible to assure that they are not exploited.

Practical difficulties arise from the beginning of employment as the BLA, 2006 stipulates that employment without an appointment letter is illegal. The tea plantation authority conducts the hiring process rather informally and mostly without an appointment letter or any documentation making the whole recruitment system questionable. As the written document is proof of the worker-employee relationship, the labour court doesn’t entertain plaint where there is no such appointment. It paves the way for violating labour rights.

Two types of workers, permanent and casual workers, are prevalent in tea plantations. A large number of tea workers are casual workers who do not have any appointment letters. Thus, Casual workers do not receive the same housing, ration, and health facilities as permanent workers. According to Section 3(8) of the BLA, 2006 a casual worker should become permanent after 3 months of service. Research shows that the permanent workforce has remained steady over the years as the tea industry is more likely to use temporary labour to dodge the legal benefits of permanent workers.[7]

Under Section 32 of the BLA, a permanent worker has to evacuate the house within 60 days of cessation of his employment which makes them more vulnerable given their socioeconomic standing. It takes away their security of accommodation after retirement. Female workers, the most powerful workforce in tea estates, don’t get maternity benefits if she has 2 or more surviving children. Fearing a loss of income, they work during pregnancy in many cases.

Tea plantation workers have been deprived, poverty-stricken, living isolatedly from the British era. Over the years their situation has not improved in this country. Instead, the misuse, loopholes, and lack of law enforcement have contributed to systematic exploitation. The Preamble to the Constitution pledges that it’s a fundamental aim of the State to have a society free from exploitation where the rule of law, fundamental human rights, freedom, and social and economic justice shall be secured. Article 28(4) of the Constitution provides that the state can make provisions for the advancement of women, children, and the backward section of society. Considering the history of servitude, the tea workers’ community can be regarded as a backward section of society and the state has the opportunity to enact laws for their advancement. To defend their rights as citizens and as laborers, it is of utmost importance to enact legislation that addresses systematic exploitation.

[1] Syed Masud Reza and Tapas Kanti Baul, Story of the Tea Workers: Subsistence against Hegemony (Empowerment through Law of the Common People (ELCOP) 2014).

[2] Dan Jones, Tea and Justice: British Tea Companies and the Tea Workers of Bangladesh (BIAG 1986).

[3] Fatemaa Waarithah Ahsan and Priya Ahsan Chowdhury, ‘Modern Day Slavery in the Tea Gardens of Bangladesh: Abolished in Law, Persisting in Fact’ (2021) 2 Journal of International Law and Comity (JILC).

[4] Such as The Maternity Benefit (Tea Estate) Act, 1950, The Bangladesh Plantation Employees Provident Fund Ordinance, 1959, The Tea Plantation Labour Ordinance, 1962, The Tea Plantation Labour Rules, 1977, and Bangladesh Cha Sramik Kallyan Fund Ordinance, 1986.

[5] Mahfuzul Haque, Environmental Governance: Emerging Challenges for Bangladesh (AH Development Publishing House 2013) 392-400.

[6] Philip Gain, ‘An Autopsy of the Tea Workers’ Bizarre Wage Structure’ The Daily Star (Dhaka, 2 July 2021) <https://www.thedailystar.net/views/opinion/news/autopsy-the-tea-workers-bizarre-wage-structure-2121726> accessed 12 September 2022.

[7]  Syed Masud Reza and Tapas Kanti Baul, Story of the Tea Workers: Subsistence against Hegemony (Empowerment through Law of the Common People (ELCOP) 2014).