Speakers in a virtual discussion on Friday focused on involving tea workers in society at large, improving their access to education and health services to improve their standard of living.
They also suggested preparing an action plan for these workers and involving them in the process of revising labor rights legislation.
The recommendations were made during a webinar titled “ Protection of tea workers: challenges and stakeholder responsibility ” organized by the Society for the Environment and Human Development (SEHD) in partnership with the Bangladesh Cha Sramik Union ( BCSU) and with the support of the Canadian Fund for Local Initiatives (CFLI) of the Canadian government marking International Tea Day.
Distinguished economist Professor Wahiduddin Mahmud attended the virtual event as the main guest, while Labor and Employment Secretary KM Abdus Salam was the special guest.
Chaired by renowned economist and BRAC Bangladesh President Dr Hossain Zillur Rahman, the program was attended by Bangladesh Tea Association (BTA) President Mr Shah Alam as guest of honor.
Representatives of homeowners, unions, academics and government officials and rights activists also took part in the discussion.
Speaking on the occasion, Prof. Wahiduddin Mahmud emphasized the inclusion of tea workers in society at large, as they are isolated from other parts of society and remain unattended.
“It is difficult, there should be efforts to involve tea workers in the society at large to gradually improve their standard of living,” said the economist.
He suggested conducting a dedicated survey to understand the level of poverty among tea workers in order to support them under government social protection programs.
He also stressed the importance of increasing productivity, education and health services for tea plantation workers and their children.
“An increase in the productivity of tea is desired, but the calculation of profits and losses in the tea sector must be accurate so that workers negotiate their legitimate rights and benefits with owners,” Professor Mahmud added.
Mr. Salam said a whole-of-government approach should be in place to address worker welfare issues.
He also stressed the need to prepare a five-year sector plan in this regard.
Mr. Hossain Zillur Rahman suggested that economists get involved in calculating what tea workers actually get.
“The culture and languages of different ethnic communities in tea gardens should also be protected,” Dr Rahman said.
Philip Gain, Director of SEHD, made an introductory presentation.
According to him, some 138,367 workers are employed in 158 tea plantations excluding eight gardens in Panchagarh and Thakurgaon. Tea workers only get 120 Tk per day according to the last agreement of owner and worker.
“The extent of discrimination and deprivation is reflected in the wages earned by tea workers,” the newspaper read.
Representatives of landowners said workers get a fair amount of different in-kind benefits in addition to cash benefits as per the agreement.
Mr. Shah Alam said that unlike other businesses, tea plantation owners have to consider multi-faceted issues including worker welfare, agricultural production and profitability.
“We see them (the workers) as our asset because we cannot function without their support,” he said.
Tea workers receive a fair amount of in-kind benefits from owners in addition to cash benefits, he added.
Rambhajan Kairi, general secretary of Bangladesh Cha Sramik Union (BCSU), said tea workers are not involved in the process of changing the law in any way.
“I call on relevant authorities to involve tea workers while any changes are made to related labor laws to make them truly meaningful to us,” Kairi said.