TEA workers in Moulavibazar have taken to the streets, protesting at an arbitrary decision of garden owners that their festival allowances on the occasion of Dol Purnima would be reduced. The tea workers of the Kuchai tea garden at Juri in the district held protests on March 22 over the announcement of reduced festival allowances and abstained from work for four hours. Keeping to the agreement of the tea workers’ union the owners of the plantations, each worker gets a festival allowance equal to 52 days’ wages based on the daily wage of Tk 170 and 40 per cent is paid before Dol Purnima and 60 per cent before Durga Puja. As the workers prepared for the Dol festivities, tea garden authorities decided to reduce the festival allowance on grounds that the companies are in a financial crisis. When the most recent increase in the minimum wage is considered inadequate and described, by workers, labour organisers and rights activists alike, as something similar to wage slavery, the denial to pay the full allowance in time is not only a labour rights violation, but also inhuman.

The tendency to deny workers their employment benefits is a common practice among garden owners. There are loopholes in laws and regulations that allow the owners to make such arbitrary decisions and withhold festival allowance or severance benefits. In July 2023, workers at Imam and Bhabani Tea Garden went on strike to push for their five-point demands that included the payment of due wages and festival allowances, the reimbursement of the provident fund and ensuring house rent and medical allowance payment but were unable to realise it. The workers allege that the authorities made no efforts to disburse due wages of Tk 81.59 lakh and festival allowances of Tk 14.47 lakh unpaid since the 2019 financial year. Tea workers do not receive 5 per cent of the net profits of the previous year of the company they work for, as specified by the Labour Act and the Workers’ Welfare Foundation Act. Rarely any actions are taken by the ministry against such gross violation of the labour law. Such a denial and the non-payment of legal dues have become part of the culture in tea gardens.

The government must, therefore, take initiatives to protect the rights of tea workers. It must scrap the colonial protocols that shield tea garden owners and allow them to exploit workers. The labour law must be revisited to ensure that tea workers have the right to negotiate their minimum wage and employment benefits and that garden owners cannot arbitrarily decide to deny or withhold festival allowance or severance benefits. The labour ministry must ensure an effective monitoring of tea gardens so that such violation of labour rights is prevented.

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