If one group was found missing in the recent movement by the tea garden workers for higher wages, they were economists. They were needed the most. Ultimately the wages were fixed at 170 by the PM personally. In a follow up to the wage fixing, which seemed meager to most, the PM’s Principal Secretary pointed out that the wages reflect only the monetary part and if one took into account benefits like medical, food subsidy and the rest, it would come to Taka 450-500 approximately.
The problem is that no one is sure what those are and what should be fair. The PS is not expected to say otherwise as it’s his job to defend the GOB’s position. However, he has a point that only wages should not count. This applies to all sectors where benefits are given on top of wages.
However, tea garden workers are not the same as rmg workers of Dhaka or any other industrial sector workers. They do constitute a part of the historical legacy of the plantation economy under colonialism. The poorest in colonial Bengal, many from Orissa and adjacent regions of Bengal, were brought to the Sylhet zone to work. The conditions they live in are very significant to bonded laborers elsewhere. Industrial wage workers' arrangements don’t fit them. They are not free to work elsewhere. Hence comparisons with other sectors can be misleading.
* Tea garden workers live like serfs who are tied to their gardens. They can’t leave even if they want to. They are born and they die in the same place. This is because of both the location of gardens and its geo-economy. It’s impossible to have tea gardens elsewhere so whoever works in the garden is never free.
* They can’t survive if they are not provided with food subsidies and some –very inadequate- medical facilities. They would be dead very quickly and that means no workers. So the subsidies and facilities are not bonus wages to the workers but in the interest of the garden owners as well. No workers no gardens
* No one knows and no one has calculated what the range of the facilities is and what they cost. This has to be calculated in terms of the loss a unit worker suffers from working in isolation with no access to other work opportunities.
* The garden workers walk miles to their work which is symptomatic of their special condition of work and life. They are stuck to their conditions because the benefits offered to them don’t include skills training or post-primary education. They can’t switch jobs. In free Bangladesh, they are the least free population group helped by the fact that they are low caste Hindu non-Bengalis in an overwhelmingly Bengali-Muslim space.
What needs immediate attention?
A proper scientific assessment based on the ground realities of denial and access and the special conditions of the tea garden workers needs to be done by experts. What is fair wages and benefits needs identification specifically for them. They are not the same as other industrial workers and till we accept this reality of colonial planation slavery like conditions they live in, we shall continue to tolerate it like proto-colonials .