During an unprecedented strike between August 9 and 27, tea workers in northeast Bangladesh demanded a cash wage of Tk 300 per day. The tea garden owners agreed to raise the wage to Tk 145 per day which angered the workers. In defiance of the decision of the owners, government officials and agencies (DC, Ministry of Labor and police) and their own leaders, the tea workers continued their strike until August 27th.
They began to calm down when Environment Minister Md Shahab Uddin, MP for Moulvibazar-1 constituency, visited a blockade on the Moulvibazar-Barlekha regional highway on August 24 and assured workers tea who were protesting that their salary problem would soon be solved. Responding to the workers’ firm stance that they will not return to work until their demand for Tk 300 daily wage has not been met, the Minister said: “The Prime Minister will talk to you on [the] salary problem and make a decision. The case will be resolved in three days.”
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Three days later, on August 27, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina sat down with the supreme body of tea garden owners, the Bangladesh Tea Association (BTA), and set the daily cash wage at 170 Tk. The tea workers wanted the Prime Minister to interfere and promised to accept whatever she decides for them.
Although what they originally asked for was more than they got, never before in history have these tea workers seen a 50 Tk increase all at once. In an agreement between the BTA and the Bangladesh Cha Sramik Union (BCSU), the only union and combined bargaining agent for tea workers, the increase was Tk 18 for 2019 and 2020 – the maximum so far.
Workers have returned to work now with the hope that their expectations for fair wages will be met in the future. All parties, including the workers’ union and the owners’ association, now have respite and time to trust each other.
However, there are other burning issues to be discussed at length and understood so that workers do not have to resort to such strikes again. The Prime Minister had to intervene when the Minimum Wage Commission and the negotiation between the BTA and the BCSU completely failed. It is understandable that she acted under a special power granted to the government by section 140(A) of the Labor Act to end the strike.
However, the calculation of wages, including the picking bonus, overtime payment for work in the fields and factories and social benefits, must be done taking into account the labor law. Subsection 45 of Section 2 of the Labor Act does not allow the inclusion of most facilities/items that owners monetize in their calculations of what they give workers in addition to salary in species. At a press conference on August 30, BTA leaders claimed that after the wage increase, what they would now give a tea worker would be almost Tk 540 per day! But such calculations are absurd.
To be pragmatic about the calculation of the cash components of benefits, BTA, BCSU and other concerned parties can check the calculation of our neighbor Assam, in which the calculation of wages is acceptable to all parties. In Assam, the daily cash wage has been set at Rs 232 for the Brahmaputra Valley and Rs 210 in the Barak Valley, effective August 1.
The Labor Welfare Department of Assam has also released the cash component of wages paid in kind and the rate of compensatory benefits per day, which amounts to Rs 104. Thus, the composite wages of workers per day in the Brahmaputra Valley are of Rs 336 and Rs 314. I am mentioning the salary situation in Assam due to the similarity between Assam and Bangladesh.
The calculation of the BTA on what a worker gets is a big surprise for the workers and their union. According to the BTA, 90% of the workers work in the fields to plant tea, take care of the plantations and pick the tea leaves. While those working in the fields will now receive Tk 170 in cash per day, those working in the factory (10% of workers) will get little more. Then the owners added 17 more components which are paid in cash and kind. The BTA did not consult the workers’ union at all in this wage calculation. Many components have been included in violation of labor law. Those that deserve to be paid in kind are also overestimates.
“I reject the calculation of landlord wages,” says Rambhajan Kairi, BCSU executive adviser and member of the Minimum Wage Board to represent tea workers. Kairi suggests that owners sit down with the BCSU to jointly calculate the cash component of wages paid in kind. “What the owners have done so far is just arbitrary,” he says. “In Assam, grubbing-up premium and overtime are not added to wages.”
Lawyer AKM Nasim, country program director of the Solidarity Centre, which works for workers’ rights, argued in favor of Rambhajan Kairi. “The tea garden owners presented a misleading calculation of the cash wages and in-kind services they provided to the tea workers when the daily cash wage was Tk 120. The employers’ calculation confuses us when it includes picking bonuses, festival bonuses, medical and annual leave benefits, and provident fund administrative expenses, among others, as part of the wage definition,” Nasim said. the job does not allow owners to add them as ‘base salary'”.
Now that the tea workers have returned to work, they will start receiving a daily cash wage of Tk 170, which was previously Tk 120. This means that the new wage structure would have come into effect from January 2021. So from then until today (end of August 2022) there are 20 months for which a worker who worked every working day during this period will receive an arrear of approximately 30,000 Tk according to a simplified calculation (50x30x20 Tk). A post-factum agreement (effective from January 2021 to December 2022) will now be signed between BTA and BCSU, as has happened in the past to facilitate the payment of arrears in installments.
One concern is whether or not 40,000 casual tea workers will receive the arrears. According to the media quoting the secretary of the BTA, only registered workers will receive the arrears. Casual workers received the same cash wages over the last two agreement periods (four years) as registered workers. However, they do not enjoy equal benefits. “If the agreement had been signed on time, the casual workers would benefit from the wage increase,” says Rambhajan Kairi. “Therefore, the practice of paying arrears to casual workers should start from now on.”
What we witnessed in August is starting a new era of tea garden protest. Tea workers demonstrated the strength of their united voice. They returned to work with their main request only partially met. Yet it is considered a victory for the quiet revolt of the tea workers.
What should not be forgotten is that these workers and their communities have remained linked to the tea gardens for five generations. They do not own the land they cultivate and on which they live. The houses in which they live do not belong to them either. There are issues other than wages that they can raise, leading to a bigger move. At this time, we expect that negotiations and an agreement between BCSU and BTA will not stall as in the past, after the current two-year agreement period ends in December 2022. timely and a reasonable increase in wages will bring lasting peace to the tea gardens.
Philip Gain is a researcher and director of the Society for Environment and Human Development (SEHD).