WORKERS in 23 tea gardens in Habiganj, Bangladesh will go on indefinite strike and block the highways if their demands are not met by today, Wednesday 17th August.
In the midst of severe food shortages and having been denied their due wages for 15 straight weeks, the 400 workers at Baikunthapur tea garden in Habiganj issued their warning after the owner of the tea estate broke his promise tp pay them last Thursday.
For over three months the 400 workers, along with 2,400 dependent family members, have had to survive on liquid extract from boiled rice, mashed tea leaves and chilli peppers. Most of the workers are very poor and live hand to mouth on their weekly wages.
But recently, the estate authorities shamelessly continued to receive their labour and not pay them in return because, according to the tea garden administrators, they have been incurring losses. With their families starving, many of the workers have run up huge debts.
Some have fallen sick and, if the problem continues, they will die, according to workers and their families. ‘Such treatment of workers is in no way acceptable in a civilised country,’ said Nripen Paul, General Secretary of the Bangladesh Tea Labour Union, Lashkarpur Valley unit, warning that there would be indefinite strike action unless their demands are met.
‘Even if the tea estate is incurring losses, that can in no way justify not paying the workers their due wages,’ he insisted. The authorities should immediately provide workers and their families with food aid as requested and, furthermore, instruct the owner of the estate to pay the workers what is owed to them without delay,’ demanded Paul.
Mohendra Bhumij, a union organiser, said: ‘Without wages, it will be impossible for workers and their families to survive.’ Elderly relatives of the tea workers spoke out about the situation. ‘Give me food or shoot me – I would say if I could see or had enough energy to shout. I’m too old to go elsewhere to earn money!’ said Jamuna Sawtal, an 80-year-old blind woman in the tea garden area.
‘I was happy to hear of my grandson’s plan to marry soon but now we are frustrated because the tea garden owner has not paid him wages for 15 weeks,’ she added. ‘If the government does not help us during the crisis period, I would rather be beheaded and let my blood flow in the garden,’ said Sudhamoni Bhumij, 75.
‘Hardship and struggle are constant companions of most of the indigenous people living in the area. But the present food crisis has left us in suffering worse than ever before,’ said Kartik Chowhan, 92. Minoti Kairi, a tea worker, said her family has stopped their children’s schooling due to the crisis.
Monib Karmakar, general secretary of Bangladesh Tea Labour Union’s Baikunthapur tea garden unit, said: ‘Workers are falling sick but are not getting proper treatment, as the garden’s only hospital has remained closed for the last six months.’
Makhan Lal Karmakar, central president of the union, said the garden owner had earlier assured the workers that they would settle the matter before July 25th, but the promise was not kept.
Elsewhere, around 7,000 tea workers went on strike in Moulvibazar last month to fight for higher pay. The workers, employed in five gardens of the state-owned National Tea Company (NTC) in Madhabpur, Modon Mohanpur, Patrokhola, Kurma and Champarai in Kamalganj, demanded that promised pay rises must be paid.
Their daily wage had been raised to Tk85 from Tk69 last year, said Makhan Lal Karmakar, president of Bangladesh Cha Sramik Union. The workers have been paid at the rate of Tk69. So they called the strike for the rest of Tk16.’ The striking workers also held several demonstrations and rallies at the of Moulvibazar tea gardens.
• Due to lack of publicity, many workers are still in the dark about the existence of the free legal aid services provided by the Workers’ Legal Aid Cell in Chittagong, the capital of Bangladesh. Labour rights activists and trade union leaders have suggested launching an intensified public information campaign and setting up a separate publicity wing to make the government-sponsored cell effective.
The trade union leaders also bemoan the fact that efficient and senior lawyers do not feel encouraged to conduct legal aid cases for workers due to the paltry fees fixed for them. The officials of the newly launched cell, however, said that they took up some plans to take the services of the cell to the workers’ doorsteps.
Legal aid is the assistance provided to people otherwise unable to afford legal representation or access to the court. The cell, launched on July 21 of this year, aims to ensure free legal aid for thousands working in ready made garment, ship breaking, ship building and steel manufacturing industries in Chittagong, the commercial capital of Bangladesh.
At present, a law officer and an office assistant are providing services to the workers at the cell housed at Chittagong Labour Court. Welcoming the move to set up a legal aid cell in Chittagong, Tapan Dutta, president of Bangladesh Trade Union Centre (TUC), said the cell would help workers on limited incomes. ‘A vigorous publicity campaign is required to make the cell functional,’ said Dutta.
‘Workers hailing from all districts under Chittagong and Sylhet divisions will receive services from the cell, but it will be really difficult for a worker to come all the way from Sylhet to Chittagong to seek legal aid. ‘Therefore, the workers coming from a long distance should be given some travel allowance,’ he said.
‘The fees fixed for a lawyer should also be raised so that they do not feel reluctant to move a legal aid case in favour of a worker,’ suggested Dutta, who is also a member of 1st Labour Court, Chittagong. Echoing the trade union leader’s suggestion, Rajib Dey, a panel lawyer from the legal aid cell, said an intensive campaign should be conducted in the industrial zones of Chittagong like CEPZ, Sagarika, Pahartali, Bayezid and Kalurghat.
Abul Hasnat, law officer of Workers’ Legal Aid Cell, said: ‘We have already submitted an action plan to the higher authorities to disseminate information about the cell. We are planning to distribute pamphlets and leaflets among the workers advertising the legal aid services.
‘Besides, we have a plan to put up billboards in areas with a high concentration of industrial workers displaying the services offered by the cell,’ said the law officer, adding that they would also arrange training programmes for trade union leaders.
The cell is supervised by National Legal Aid Services Organisation (NLASO) with technical assistance from UNDP under its Justice Sector Facility project.
The cell provides legal advice, assistance in mediation to settle disputes, assistance to draft grievance petitions, help in engaging legal aid panel lawyers and to represent cases. A worker can seek legal aid over compensation for workplace injuries, illegal layoff, dismissal and discharge, minimum wage, non-payment of wages and other benefits, payment for overtime, holidays, maternity leave, and provident fund and other rights guaranteed by the Bangladesh Labour Act, 2006. As many as 22 workers have so far applied seeking legal assistance from the cell.
• Last month, a court in Bangladesh formally charged 38 people with murder in connection with the 2013 collapse of the Rana Plaza building which killed 1,135 people in the country’s worst industrial disaster.
A total of 41 defendants face charges over the collapse of the complex, which housed five garment factories supplying global brands. Plaza owner Sohel Rana is the principal accused.
Public prosecutor Abdul Mannan said 38 people had been charged with murder while three were charged with helping Rana to flee after the incident. Rana was arrested after a four-day manhunt, apparently trying to flee across the border to India.
Of the 41 people charged, 35, including Rana, appeared before the court and pleaded not guilty. The other six are fugitives and will be tried in absentia.