Will the tea workers get the wages they deserve?

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An unthinkable and deplorable situation has risen out of the rigid position taken by the Minimum Wage Board (MWB) that was formed to fix the minimum wage for the hapless tea workers of Bangladesh. After much haggling, the wage board sent its final recommendation on the minimum wage structure for the tea workers to the Ministry of Labour and Employment. Severely disturbed at the negotiation table of the wage board, Rambhajan Kairi, who represents around 138,000 tea workers from 158 tea gardens in Sylhet and Chattogram divisions, abstained from approving and signing the recommendation. He also did not join the last meeting of the wage board, held just before it sent its recommendation to the labour ministry at the end of June this year.

The labour ministry, apparently dissatisfied, sent the recommendation back to the wage board, asking it to reconsider the wages of the tea workers who currently get ridiculously low daily cash pay of Tk 117, Tk 118, and Tk 120. The wages of monthly paid tea workers are also similarly low. The ministry’s move brought a ray of hope for the tea workers. The wage board, set up by the government in October 2019 to give a pragmatic consideration while fixing the tea workers’ wages, kept the same wages that they currently get. The current wages had been fixed for 2019 and 2020 through an agreement between the Bangladesh Tea Association (BTA), which represents the tea garden owners, and Bangladesh Cha Sramik Union (BCSU), the tea workers’ union. The tea workers were surprised and shocked to see that the wage board had not changed their wages. What is more, it scrapped the traditions (dastur) in the tea gardens, showed little respect to the labour law, curtailed tea workers’ benefits, and remained blind to the minimum wages that the government has fixed for other industries.

We haven’t seen the communications from the labour ministry, but it is clear that the ministry was not satisfied with the wage board’s recommendation, and wanted it reconsidered to do some justice to the tea workers.

However, the meeting that the wage board convened on October 4 to discuss and reconsider the recommendation in light of the ministry directive was allegedly spoiled. “The owners’ representative questioned the validity of the meeting, on the grounds that the directive and advice of the labour ministry had not come with its letter, which came on the 44th day after the receipt of the final recommendation. They said the directive came after 45 days, and therefore were void,” said Kairi, representative of the tea workers. The wage board chairman himself reportedly took the owners’ representative’s side.

Section 140 of the Labour Act, however, clearly states that the government, represented by the labour ministry, can send back recommendations made by the minimum wage board for reconsideration within 45 days of its receipt with or without comment and information. Giving comments or additional information is not mandatory.

The chairman and four other members of the Minimum Wage Board reportedly decided not to have any further discussion and to send the same recommendation back to the labour ministry. The October 4 meeting, thus, wound up with a thumb extended downward.

This is a ridiculous development when compared with the minimum wages fixed for workers in other industries. Take the construction and wood sector, for example, where workers are placed in six grades and their wages are calculated on monthly and daily bases. The latest gazette, published on August 16, 2021, has announced their wages. In Grade 6, the lowest-paid among the workers in the construction and wood sector, jogalis (helpers) and labourers will now get a daily wage of Tk 620 in rural areas and Tk 680 in urban areas. The daily wages in Grade 5, for assistant masons and other assistant workers (in rod, wood, electricity, paint and polish), will be Tk 710 in rural areas and Tk 770 in urban areas. Masons, carpenters, electricians, assistant mosaic mechanics, assistant tile mechanics, all belonging to Grade 3, will get a daily wage of Tk 870 in rural areas and Tk 940 in the urban areas. The highest paid workers in this sector (in Grade 1)—mosaic and tile mechanics—will get Tk 1,020 in the rural areas and Tk 1,105 in urban areas.

Why, then, are the tea workers, who work harder in the fields and factories, getting such miserable wages? If we recalculate the wages with the subsidies for ration added to the cash pay, a tea worker gets less than Tk 200 a day. As far as we understand, the owners’ representative has tried to convince the wage board that it pays a daily wage of Tk 403 to a tea worker. The chairman of the wage board, a senior district judge, must be aware that the owners have monetised the houses given to workers, equipment required for plucking tea leaves, overtime pay, owners’ contribution to the provident fund, medical expense, pension, education cost of the children of tea workers, labour welfare programmes, and even the incomes of the tea workers generated from growing vegetables, fruits and raising cattle on the land leased from the government for tea production, while calculating the wages. Section 2 (45) of the labour law does not allow the employers to monetise these and to add them to the wages.

If the wage board had any respect for the labour ministry’s advice communicated on September 13 and afterwards, it should have further investigated the grievances of the tea workers and consulted all parties—including economists—to reconsider its recommendation. Section 140 (3) of the labour law states that if the wage board thinks there is no need to amend or change the recommendation, it can inform the government explaining the reasons why. However, the government—more specifically the labour ministry, in this case—has the power to take legal measures to make sure the workers get justice in getting fair wages.

Section 141 of the labour law mentions factors for the wage board to consider at the time of fixing new wage structure for any industry. These are cost of living, standard of living, production cost, price of products, business capability, inflation, type of work, risk and standard, economic and social conditions of the country and of the locality concerned, and other relevant factors.

Had the wage board been mindful of these factors, and considered the wages that the tea workers get in India, Sri Lanka, Kenya, and other countries, it could not have blindly supported the owners and recommended a wage structure that severely infringes the country’s constitution and the labour law. Needless to say, the wage board has shown disdain for a largely non-Bangalee and non-Muslim working community, whom many compare with modern-day slaves or a captive labour force.

“If we think of living expenses in the Sylhet region, it is Tk 7,750 for a single adult, Tk 14,500 for a four-member family, and Tk 16,800 for a family with more than four members,” said Dr Binayak Sen, director general of Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS), during a recent dialogue on tea workers’ wages.

“What has been happening with the tea workers is a matter of great injustice,” said Dr Hossain Zillur Rahman, former caretaker government adviser and the executive chairman of the Power and Participation Research Centre (PPRC). “The current wages have to be increased because of inflation and other factors. We hope the Minimum Wage Board will increase wages logically.”

Despite all the strong arguments shared by different quarters, including the tea workers’ union, the owners’ side remains rigid about their position to not increase wages at all. With the workers’ representative technically excluded, the wage board has blindly taken the owners’ side. We can safely say that the owners have hijacked the wage board, to safeguard their profits. This is not fair. The immediate role of the government is to see that justice is done in giving fair wages to the tea workers.

Philip Gain is a researcher and director at the Society for Environment and Human Development (SEHD).

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