Tea workers lag far behind the mainstream in access to clean water and sanitation. With low wages, the living standards of this isolated and marginalised population are also low. Yet it will not be possible to achieve sustainable development leaving these tea workers behind. The government is committed to improve their living standards and even is working to this end. However, there is a need for coordinated efforts at all levels between the government and non-government agencies for their overall development.
These were the observations made by policymakers and experts at a roundtable on 'Clean Water and Sanitation (SDG6): Inclusion of Tea Workers.' The roundtable was organised by the international development agency Water Aid and Prothom Alo, with support from Water Alliance International and the developmental agency Simavi. The event was held on Monday at the Prothom Alo office in Karwan Bazar of the capital city.
The discussants said the tea workers who are lagging behind will be brought into the mainstream. There is need for policies and directives from the government to improve the living standards of the tea workers. Coordinated initiative is required from the tea garden owners, the tea workers union, the local panchayet, the tea board, the non-government organisations and the government.
Member of the Bangladesh Tea Board (Finance and Trade) and joint secretary Nazneen Kawsar Chowdhury said that there were 167 tea gardens. Around 150,000 (1.5 lac) workers worked here, 51 per cent of them women. Another 500,000 (5 lac) persons were dependents of these workers. The government is working in four areas for the workers -- healthy housing, clean drinking water, health care and child centres, and establishing workers' rights.
It was hard to carry on the work of the NGOs in sanitation or clean water in the tea gardens once the projects came to an end. The garden authorities should continue with the initiatives. The laws and rules for the tea workers' rights must be implemented alongside the labour laws
Nazneen Kawsar Chowdhury said regular inspections of the tea gardens were carried out. Many government organisations were working separately with the tea garden, but as these were no coordinated, the full picture of the government's initiatives was not visible. Economic empowerment of the workers was being carried out, but the health-related right was still to be achieved. The government was endeavouring to ensure this right.
Country director of WaterAid Bangladesh, Hasin Jahan, said the tea industry has an important role in both the economy and tourism and yet two-thirds of the tea workers were living below the poverty line. If the Sustainable Development Goals are to be achieved, clean drinking water and sanitation must be ensured. The government, the owners, the local government, the tea board, the workers, everyone must work together. If a worker fares well, business will fare well. The tea garden owners must be motivated further to take more initiatives to improve the living standards of the workers.
74 per cent of the workers lived below the poverty line. Even though they wanted to use latrines, they couldn't afford these. The rations they received were inadequate. With the wages they received, it was difficult for the tea workers to manage clean water and sanitation
The lives of the tea workers are caught up in the poverty cycle, said former additional secretary and WaterAid Bangladesh's policy advisor Md Shafiqul Islam. He said Bangladesh ranks 12th in the world in tea production. However, the tea garden children have stunted growth due to malnutrition. There is scope for the government to work further in education, health, clean water and sanitation. He advised that a master plan be drawn up for the improvement of the living standards of the tea workers.
Country coordinator of Simavi's WASH Alliance International, Alok Kumar Majumder, said a recent survey of the tea gardens revealed that three per cent of the people received clean water. And 3.8 per cent of the people had access to proper sanitation. The survey revealed that 95 per cent of the women used dirty cloth to manage their mensuration. The tea workers were living with fragile health.
Tea workers still defecated in open spaces. Their homes were rickety. The women workers could not afford to buy sanitary pads and this put them as risk of uterine cance
Vice chairman of Kamalganj union and former general secretary of the tea workers association, Rambhajan Koiri, said if the laws were not followed, the workers' problems would persist. He said, it was hard to carry on the work of the NGOs in sanitation or clean water in the tea gardens once the projects came to an end. The garden authorities should continue with the initiatives. The laws and rules for the tea workers' rights must be implemented alongside the labour laws.
Vice chairman of Srimangal upazila, Mitali Dutta, said tea workers still defecated in open spaces. Their homes were rickety. The women workers could not afford to buy sanitary pads and this put them as risk of uterine cancer. She suggested that regular inspections of the tea gardens be carried out in order to identify the problems of the tea workers.
Executive director of the Institute of Development Affairs (IDEA) Sylhet, Nazmul Huq, said he tea garden children lagged behind in health and education. There are questions as to how far the authorities are ensuring this. And the people of the tea gardens themselves were not very involved in social movements for awareness. Stress must be placed on raising their awareness regarding improving their living standards.
General manager of City Group Tea Estate, Shezad Sarwar, said for long there have been shortcomings in the tea workers' education, sanitation and access to clean water. We are interested to work with the government and NGOs. If we work together, there will be no negligence.
Wages are the main problem in ensuring the rights of the tea workers, felt the Bangladesh tea workers union president, Raju Goala. He said, living standards are directly related to wages. The other problems are the result of poverty. The tea workers no longer want to remain behind. The flour and rice rations they receive are often unfit for human consumption.
Presenting the keynote at the event, WaterAid Bangladesh's policy and advocacy director Partho Hefaz Sheikh said a survey on tea workers said that 74 per cent of the workers lived below the poverty line. Even though they wanted to use latrines, they couldn't afford these. The rations they received were inadequate. With the wages they received, it was difficult for the tea workers to manage clean water and sanitation. They would use water from the well or springs. There were some tubewells but not enough. There was a lack of adherence to the health and hygiene protocol.
WaterAid Bangladesh's advocacy specialist Ranjan Kumar Ghosh said that in 2010 the United Nations had declared clean drinking water and sanitation fundamental human rights. And, in keeping with the Sustainable Development Goals and the National Plan of Action, the government aimed to ensuring sustainable and quality clean water and sanitation for all by 2030.
Prothom Alo associate editor Quayum Chowdhury presented the opening comments at the event. The event was moderated by Prothom Alo assistant editor Firoz Choudhury. Also speaking at the event were WaterAid Bangladesh's programme manager Imamur Rahman and technical advisor Tahmidul Islam.