It was noon on October 6, 2018. A woman was sitting under a mahogany tree in the Sreemangal Upazila Health Complex in Moulvibazar. Another woman was holding a newborn baby wrapped in a blanket. A couple of men were there too. I approached them out of curiosity, only to hear a breathtaking story. The woman sitting under the tree was Mithila Nayek, 22, a tea worker at the Hossainabad Tea Garden in Sreemangal Upazila. She looked pale and in pain. In fact, she had only given birth to the girl an hour earlier. Maya Tanti, her relative, took care of the newborn.
Mithila’s baby did not cry when it was born; she had difficulty breathing. The doctors at the health complex referred her to the Moulvibazar District Hospital. Mithila’s husband Narendra Nayek and brother Madan Nayek were looking for a vehicle to take them to Moulvibazar. An ambulance parked further away would cost Tk 500 – a large sum for the family. Narendra finally found a CNG auto rickshaw after a half hour search and took the mother and baby to Moulvibazar Sadar Hospital. Both survived.
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Mithila had the baby after three miscarriages. Most of the women who work in the tea gardens give birth with the help of untrained midwives (dhatri), and childbirth, stillbirth and maternal deaths in the tea gardens are much higher than the national average. Mithila went to the Upazila Health Complex because her water was broken the night before and all the fluid had drained, but the untrained midwife she went to could not deliver her baby all night.
Mithila and her family went through an ordeal to go to the health complex. The road conditions were bumpy and she had to drive in a CNG auto rickshaw. The private tea garden did not provide any vehicles, let alone an ambulance, even in the critical condition of a woman giving birth. It was sheer luck that her baby survived.
There are thousands of women like Mithila who work in tea gardens across Bangladesh who suffer as well in childbirth. They also have a hard time during their pregnancies and this is due to the remoteness of the areas, superstitions, cultural practices, malnutrition, poor housing, harsh and indecent working conditions. The tea garden workers are often in poor health. Cases of cervical cancer, tuberculosis, and other diseases are occurring in their communities.
Compared to other agricultural industries, the ratio of men and women in the labor force in the tea industry differs in that 51 percent of the approximately 139,000 workers in the 158 traditionally large tea gardens in Sylhet, Moulvibazar, Habiganj, Chattogram and Rangamati districts – are women . When we visit the tea gardens, we mainly see women in the green valleys who are busy picking tea leaves. From a distance, the tea leaf harvest scene is picturesque. But we probably can’t imagine the hassle of picking tea leaves with our bare hands and sometimes with our bare feet. While most men disappear around noon after completing their nirikh (daily work quota), women work in the gardens until sundown.
When picking tea leaves, workers have to stand all day – be it in the scorching sun or in the rain. They usually walk four to five kilometers to get to the section where they pick tea leaves. They work quickly to fulfill their daily nirikh. All day long women pick tea leaves in groups. Not only do they pick the tender leaves, but they also get rid of unnecessary creepers and weeds that they encounter while working. So they also care for every tea plant.
Between morning and noon, a tea leaf picker (pattiwali) will likely complete two rounds of delivering tea leaves to collection points. They each walk two to three kilometers to the assembly point and then return to their designated sections. The collections during the morning hours sometimes go well beyond the Nirikh of the day.
The lunch break offers a lot of scene. Usually they sit in groups under the open sky or a tree. There is no shade under which to sit and have lunch or rest when someone gets sick – which is a violation of labor law. The staple food for their lunch is usually homemade bread or rice, while they sometimes eat potatoes, fried chilli, onions, and chanachur. They also carry bottles of cold tea, which they usually make from low quality tea leaves. Many simply soak the bread in cold tea and eat it for lunch. In the places where they have lunch, they make a small fire to keep mosquitos and flies away.
The indecency doesn’t stop there. There is also no toilet or washing facility in the sections where the tea garden workers work (although one tea garden recently reported the establishment of toilets). This means women poop and urinate outdoors. Again, this is a clear violation of labor law.
After lunch, they prepare for the afternoon shift. During the preparation, many rub their legs and feet with kerosene or other solutions. This is said to protect their bare feet and legs from leeches and insects. As they drop their last head loads of green tea leaves at the collection points, the sun sets on the horizon.
The most disturbing part of this scenario is that women are picking an extra 20-25kg, or even more, of tea leaves to make some extra cash after reaching their daily goal of 22-25kg. The wages for picking up the extra tea leaves are not fair. In other words, the tea workers are pushed to work overtime in order to earn additional income, while the working hours are usually fixed for the male workers. This is a deceptive strategy to trick women into working harder and longer than men.
Tea workers are toughest during their pregnancies. They work until the end of their pregnancy. Heavy work and falls while at work often lead to miscarriages. They usually take their maternity leave after giving birth. They save their sick leave, which they take shortly before the birth, and stay at home two to three weeks before the delivery.
The added pressure on women is that many are married off early and have children before they are physically ready. In addition, it is women who use all methods of contraception. In a 2018 survey of 60 pregnant women by the Society for the Environment and Human Development (SEHD), it was found that 29 of them were married before the age of 18. Twenty-nine of these 60 women were using contraception. But none of her husbands used contraception. These and many other factors lead to miscarriages and maternal mortality far more often in tea gardens than the national average.
Women in the tea gardens – housewives or tea leaf pickers – do endless chores. Before starting the daily work in the tea gardens, a tea worker must do all the morning chores. After returning home from work, she resumes doing housework. She does a long list of chores, including cooking, gathering firewood, washing, cleaning, looking after pets, fetching water, looking after children, and helping her husband with farm work. She doesn’t have time to rest after all of these chores that she routinely does. Women do all of this quietly.
What do they get in return for all their services to their families, society and the tea industry? Can they speak out in social organizations, trade unions and other forums?
While women have to work extremely hard, patriarchy overshadows their lives and their contribution. Women, for example, are only one-third of 3,200 members of 230 panchayats, the garden-level community councils belonging to their only union, the Bangladesh Cha Sramik Union, which has a central committee of 35 members – of which only nine are women. In none of the central and talk committees and panchayats is a woman chairman, general secretary or treasurer. Women have the option of being elected to the seats reserved for them. No woman has ever been appointed chairman, general secretary or treasurer of any level on any election body. Men say women are incapable and lack time – a claim that women refute.
In addition, women face extreme discrimination when being hired in the workplace. Almost all of the sardars (overseers) in the tea gardens are men. Few of the office workers – around 3,000 – are women. They also report exposure to a variety of physical and psychological abuse in the workplace, at home, and in society. These include verbal abuse by their employers and supervisors, abuse by their husbands (especially if they are drunk), coercion, sexual harassment including rape, involuntary abortion, and sexual assault on teenage children and girls.
The tea workers, most of whom are not Bengali Hindus, are considered socially outcasts due to their caste status and face significant wage and income inequalities. The current cash wage of a tea worker is currently 120,000,000. If you add all ancillary services (rations at subsidized prices, in particular free accommodation and treatment), it is around 200,000,000. The tea workers never received a bonus or their share of the profits on retirement of the company. In addition, as citizens of Bangladesh, they face many other types of deprivation as they are isolated from the majority population.
Women are hardest hit by discrimination in tea gardens. A high percentage of them are thin and malnourished. But they don’t consider themselves victims; They continue to show their strength. They demonstrate their skills in dealing with their families with poor incomes and few opportunities. They are the ones who give hope and imagination to their children, who they see educated and who don’t want to become tea workers. It is they who are determined to break the tradition: “Children of tea workers become tea workers”.
Philip Gain is a researcher and director of the Society for Environment and Human Development (SEHD).