Female tea garden workers struggle with hygiene-related issues during menstruation, maternity, and childcare
As many as 74 % of tea garden workers in Sylhet still live below the poverty line, according to a recent survey by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) and Unicef.
Basic data on women and children working in tea gardens are lacking, slowing down progress in the Sylhet division compared to other parts of the country, the study found.
The findings of the study were revealed at a UN Women Bangladesh webinar, “Enhancing social protection for female tea garden workers and their families in Sylhet Division, Bangladesh", on Wednesday. The survey and two workshops were arranged jointly by ILO, UNFPA and Unicef.
Major points of discussion at the webinar included Gender Responsive Planning and Budgeting (GRPB) and social protection of tea garden workers.
Ram Bhajan Kairi, general secretary of Bangladesh Cha Sramik Union (BCSU), said each tea garden worker receives only Tk120 as a daily wage. The government and tea garden owners are not making efforts to increase it.
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"Our grievance is that the law reform committee has not listened to the demands of the tea workers. Only owners are present in this type of consultation," he said.
Gitanjali Singh, Head of agency, a.i, UN Women Bangladesh, in her speech stressed on three points that include transformative financing for gender equality, allocations (outlays) translating into real, tangible changes in the lives of women, girls and the need to advance gender responsive social protection measures.
Lack of hygiene facilities, threat of domestic violence
Under the UN joint program, two workshops were held on GRPB in Sylhet Division. The first was held in December 2020, and the second in March 2021 to address the immediate and long-term needs of tea garden workers and their family members, especially female tea garden workers.
Female tea garden workers struggle with hygiene-related issues during menstruation, maternity, and childcare. They work more than eight hours a day in extreme weather conditions, with little access to resting places and washing facilities, the program found.
Besides, early marriage, dowry, and domestic violence are common against tea garden workers, it added.
Disagreement over findings
However, Tahsin Ahmed Chowdhury, convener of the Labour Health and Welfare subcommittee of the Bangladesh Tea Association, claimed there were huge discrepancies in the BBS-Unicef data. He stated that workers were paid more than Tk300 each per day.
"The tea business has been in existence for the last 150 years and it is a seasonal business regulated by the impact of weather. The cost of production is also determined by market forces and that's why we can't always fulfill all the needs of the workers, but we try our best," he said.
He also disagreed with the perception of gender discrimination in the tea gardens because tea garden communities are matrilineal.
There are seven health centres with qualified doctors, 27 primary schools, and one high school on 1-acre of land in the tea garden areas at the moment, he added.
Negligence should end
Prof Sayema Haque Bidisha of the Dhaka University department of economics said: “According to various reports, there are 90-93 communities in the tea garden areas. Surprisingly, they live 20 years less than us, which is really very shocking. Our government should take more initiatives and focus on their health, education, and livelihood."
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Ferdousi Sultana Begum, gender and social protection expert and international team leader at ADB, said tea garden workers were being neglected. She noted that their problems could be solved if the government wanted.
Md Nayeb Ali, deputy secretary at the Ministry of Social Welfare, said the ministry provided housing and accommodation for tea garden workers, whereas tea garden leaders said that they had not received any documents that proved the houses had been provided by the government.
Ferdousi Begum, deputy secretary (budget and audit) at the Ministry of Women and Children Affairs (MoWCA), said: "By 2025, we wish to support 100% of pregnant mothers in vulnerable communities and we also have the safety net for female tea garden workers in Sylhet, which is ongoing."
According to the annual report of the Bangladesh Tea Board for 2017-2018, a total of 4,40,743 workers and their families lived in 159 tea gardens across the country.
Among them, 100,6191 were permanent workers (48,611 male and 50,144 female) and 36,028 were temporary workers (13,186 male and 13,192 female).