The main factor driving modern slavery within the tea industry in Bangladesh is the extreme marginalisation of tea garden workers, who are mostly descendants of migrants from India, by wider society. Social and economic exclusion mean workers have no alternative to working under highly exploitative conditions in the tea industry.
The review found considerable literature on the working conditions of tea workers, but little on the wider context of their position in society, attention to the plight of tea workers in policy-making, or the macro-economic and political pressures to sustain modern slavery in Bangladesh’s tea gardens. Key findings are as follows:
- Numbers – Estimates vary but there are over 100,000 tea workers spread over 160-plus tea gardens in Bangladesh, with the total population (including family members) reaching over 400,000 (Ahmmed & Hossein, 2016: p. 6).
- Working conditions – There is consensus in the literature that working conditions of tea workers are extremely poor, characterised by long hours, low pay, inadequate accommodation, and very limited education and healthcare facilities – leading to them lagging behind the rest of the population in human development indicators.
- Lack of roots in Bangladesh – The tea industry in Bangladesh was established by the British in the 1800s. The overwhelming majority of tea garden workers in the country are descendants of immigrants brought in by the British from India. This means they have no place other than the tea gardens to go to in Bangladesh.
- Marginalisation – Tea garden workers are socially and economically excluded in Bangladesh, and thus have negligible opportunities to find alternative work. Socially, they live and work in the tea gardens and have hardly any interaction with the mainstream population, who also look down on them because they are typically low caste Hindus.
- The payment system in the tea gardens (particularly for leaf pickers) promotes modern slavery: workers have to reach daily targets (typically 23 kg) and have their wages cut if they fall short – many thus work longer hours or rope in family members (e.g. children) to ensure they meet the target.
- Weak enforcement of labour legislation – Tea garden workers are covered by labour legislation, notably the Bangladesh Labour Act 2006, which provides significant rights. However, tea workers have fewer rights than workers in other sectors with regard to casual and earned leave. The bigger issue is lack of enforcement of labour rights.
- Ineffectual union representation – Tea garden workers used to be represented by a number of unions but these were rendered ineffective by in-fighting. There is now just one major union for tea workers, but this is hampered by lack of capacity, resources and union leaders being ‘bought off’ by tea garden owners.
- Not a political priority – Political parties have shown negligible interest in the plight of tea garden workers. The Awami League’s 2008 election manifesto had one mention of tea workers’ rights, but when in power the party did very little over the next few years to help them. Other parties did not mention them in their manifestoes.
- Limited support – A number of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are operating some schools and health facilities in tea gardens, but on the whole there have been few initiatives or programmes to support tea workers.
Women suffer particularly in the tea sector in Bangladesh. The majority of tea pickers – who spend over eight hours each day picking leaves – are women. Typical men’s jobs include working in factories, as supervisors and as security guards. The review found nothing specifically about persons with disabilities in the tea industry in Bangladesh.