Tea leaves and livelihoods
Fariza Binte Habib
The socio-economic, educational, and health disparities between regular and casual tea workers serving in two companies at Sri Mangal. Of the two tea companies: one is Finlay and the other is Satgaon. The factors that are contributing to their differing life experiences. The overall aim is to investigate distinctive life trajectories of the regular and casual workers employed in two different tea gardens of the Sylhet region based on interviews, surveys, and data analysis.
The history of Sylhet traces back to the 19th century when the British dominion established tea cultivation in the region. The hilly landscapes, conducive climate, and abundant rainfall made Sylhet a suitable location for tea plantations. The tea industry rapidly gained prominence, drawing attention from British investors. Soon large tea estates were established and a majority portion of the labour force consisted of local workers, many of whom were from neighbouring areas or primordial communities. These workers toiled in the tea gardens performing various work such as plucking tea leaves processing them and maintaining the estates.
Over the decades, the labour conditions in Sylhet tea gardens reflected manipulative practices. Labourers had to deal with long working hours, received very low wages, had inadequate housing, and had finite access to essential services like healthcare and education. These conditions resulted in displeasure among the workforce. Consequently, leading to protests and the labour movement as a response to these conditions. In 1954 one of the most significant protests took place when tea workers in Sylhet went on strike demanding better working conditions and higher wages. This movement known as the “Tea Workers Movement” gathered attention and support leading to concessions from the plantation owners and improvement in the aspects of labour conditions.
However, the struggle for improved working conditions and fair wages continued. In recent years labor unions and workers in Sylhet tea gardens engaged in protest to advocate for a substantial increase in their wages. One notable example is the 2019 movement, where tea garden workers went on a strike to demand a daily wage of 300 Bangladeshi taka (BDT), up from the existing wage of 85 BDT.
The movement gained momentum as workers from various tea estates joined forces. The protest involved rallies, demonstrations, and strikes that gathered media coverage and public attention. The collective voice of the workers resonated, prompting negotiations between labor unions, tea estate owners, and government representatives. As a result, an agreement was reached to increase the daily wage of tea workers in Sylhet to 170 BDT, a substantial improvement from the previous wage. But the meager wage increase did not lessen their problems either.
Amid the lush landscapes of Sylhet’s tea gardens a tale of two worlds unfold-one of regular workers who began their day with a sense of security of established contracts and incomes anchored by stability whereas casual workers with faces etched navigating a sea of uncertainty. This essay captures the intricate details of the worker's hardships, struggles, and life experiences even after the increase in their wage rate.
Through interviews, the everyday life of a regular worker who works for a local company named ‘Satgaon Tea Factory is brought to the forefront. Normesh has been serving the company for 20 years. He studied up till 9th grade and he has been working since he was 18 years old and hence shares all his life experiences. His ancestors were also regular workers who worked for the company.
Regular workers work 6 days a week from 9 am to 2 pm. They are allotted 20 days of leave a year. Their salary gets deducted if they are absent for more than 20 days a year. They raise animals such as hens, cows, and dogs as a means of their livelihood. In dire times, they sell their pet cows, and chickens to meet their ends. They receive 3.5 kg of flour which is the fixed amount for all regular workers irrespective of their family size. When a child of the regular worker turns 8 years then they are eligible for getting weekly grocery. The workers formed a union and deposited all the money they saved. Upon retirement, the company doubles the money saved by the union workers and distributes it to all of them.
A vast proportion of their income is spent on food, children’s education, and other medical expenses. The company under which they work pays about 50% of the healthcare expenses. Their houses are provided by the company which is one of the reasons why despite such low wages they work in tea gardens. They have a stressful working environment. Suppose some worker informs the assistant manager locally known as “Babu” or the manager locally known as ‘Saheb’ about some sort of difficulty they are facing working in such a vast tea estate while plucking tea leaves which weigh 23 kg the problem is neglected. Instead of giving a solution, they are advised to continue with their work.
It is saddening that the worker's pleas go in vain. If someone refuses or argues with them then the workers are threatened by the Saheb and Babu to reduce their wage to half. There is no toilet facility or fresh water supply in the garden sections (working areas) for workers to cleanse themselves during work. This is difficult especially for women when they have their menstruation. Hundreds of tea garden workers, mostly women, must face this ordeal every day. On Sunday which is their off day most workers work in Lemon fields which gives them a pay of around BDT 200-300 per day. Many workers work there on Sundays to earn extra money and provide financial support to their families. A daily wage of tk 170 BDT is not enough to manage an entire household.
On the contrary, interviewing Rina Tati a regular worker who has been serving a foreign company named “Finlay” for 10 years helps to understand some differences between the life trajectories of regular workers working in two different companies. Rani Tati has studied up till 5th grade. She and her father-in-law are the only bread earners in a family of 7 members including her husband two children mother-in-law, father-in-law, brother-in-law, and sister-in-law.
Every day she wakes up at 5 am to finish all her household chores and leaves for work at 8:50 a.m. They receive a lunch break for 30 minutes. Their working conditions are much worse as there is no well or fresh water supply near the gardens hence, they work thirsty for about 8 hours under the scorching sun. The company makes workers work for long working hours and does not provide any health benefits or any housing repair maintenance facilities.
Upon interviewing, Rina Tati she said the house provided by Finlay Company had a damaged ceiling from the beginning, and on rainy days water leaks inside the house. When she informed Saheb and Babu about it her request was unheard. The common problem that all workers working in Satgaon Tea Garden and Finlay Company are facing is the sanitization issue.
They are forced to excrete in marshy lands which is unhygienic. She further added during her pregnancy she got 4 months of maternity leave and some expenses for healthcare were provided by the company. Her mother-in-law used to take care of her children when they were just a few months old as she had to rush back to work as soon as her maternity leave was over. She also said that apart from the maternity leave if they are absent for more than 20 days a year the bonus that they receive once a year during the occasion of Durga Puja is deducted. They receive 1.5 kg of flour every week (which is 2 kg less provided by Satgaon Tea Company) and it also gets deducted if they are absent for more than 20 days in a year.
At the heart of tea gardens, apart from the inconveniences mentioned the lives of regular workers weave a tapestry of predictability and security. With permanent positions ingrained in the estates’ history, they awaken each day with the assurance that their labour is valued and their livelihoods safeguarded. Their cottages, adorned with vibrant hues, symbolize not only homes but also stability, reflecting consistent wages that sustain these households
In contrast, casual workers traverse an unpredictable journey through the gardens. Their days are shaped by the whims of seasonal demand, and their employment is as transient as the mist enveloping the tea bushes.
The absence of permanence is mirrored in their living conditions- improvised structures mirroring the ephemeral nature of their work. The undulating course of their lives is defined by irregular wages that rise and fall with the harvest, leaving them vulnerable to economic uncertainty. More details of their lives are brought to light by interviewing two groups of female casual workers. One from the Satgaon Tea Garden and another from Finlay Company. They narrate that they work for 6 hours and receive BDT 120 for plucking the same 23 kg of tea leaves as regular workers.
They work knowing their job is uncertain and save money to build houses made of woods which are more often destroyed by extreme winds and turbulent weather conditions. Health expenses, food, and shelter repair costs all sum up more money than they earn. They can’t even afford to raise cows, hens, or goats to provide for them and then sell them in terms of need. Hence to support their families they sew and make clothes and sell them to earn some extra money. Some of their husbands work in lemon gardens which are located in less accessible areas hence their daily wage between is BDT 200-300 which mostly gets used up in transportation. They are treated indifferently compared to regular workers. The most proportion of their income is spent on housing, as they do not have a fixed place to stay.
The two Groups of casual workers from respective companies: Finlay and Satgaon have been working for 7 years and yet their appeal of registration as wanting to work as regular workers is not taken into consideration. The lives of casual workers are almost identical for both companies.
Within the realm of education, another stark contrast emerges. Regular workers, buoyed by the stability of their income, ensure that their children step onto the path of learning. Uniforms are donned, bags are slung over the young shoulders, and the school bell becomes a beacon of opportunity. Through the interview of a group of teenage children of regular workers. They have high ambitions and aspire to become police and teacher and work in developing the village they are getting full support from their families. Meanwhile, Casual laborers grapple with the challenge of education’s cost, their children are sometimes forced to choose between the classroom and the tea fields that demand their help.
While interviewing a group of teenage children of casual workers it is learned that their school attendance is sporadic, dictated by the rhythm of their parents’ uncertain work schedules. Education is a fragile flame, vulnerable to the winds of financial constraints that persistently Regular workers, beneficiaries of the respective industry’s healthcare provisions, approach life’s ailments with a degree of security. But for casual labourers, health concerns transform into a battle against not only illness but also the lack of access to timely medical care.
Policy recommendations arise like shoots amidst the tea leaves rooted in the idea of unified industries. The tapestry of Sylhet’s tea gardens could be rewoven, allowing equitable education access, healthcare provisions, and a more secure foothold for casual labourers. The success of this endeavor, however, hinges upon a collective commitment from tea estates, policymakers, and the community at large. This research not only uncovers the disparities but also illuminates pathways toward a more equitable coexistence. Through interviews that echo personal stories, and surveys that capture collective experiences, the narratives of these lives are brought to life.
As the research journey concludes, the stories of regular and casual workers continue to resonate, reminding us that the paths we walk are often shaped by factors beyond our control. Yet, within these stories lie the threads of change, waiting to be woven into a narrative that intertwines the lives of all who call the tea gardens of Sylhet their home.