Gita Kurmi, 12, at Gulni Tea Estate in Sylhet District, Bangladesh. WaterAid/ Abir Abduallah
When colonialism brought tea to the Western world 150 years ago, demand for it exploded. British colonialists in Asia responded by relocating a workforce from India to Bangladesh, creating new tea plantations in the hills of the northeast.
Today, 165 tea gardens employ 400,000 people in this region, hand-picking leaves from rows of cultivated shrubs. Despite tea-pickers’ importance in this global trade, their jobs and lives continue to be exploited through denial of rights.
Tea pickers working at Gulni Tea Estate in Sylhet District, Bangladesh.WaterAid/ Abir Abduallah
Usually women, predominantly Hindu in a Muslim majority country, and isolated from the rest of society by their location, tea pickers are among Bangladesh’s most marginalised communities
They are also very poor. A typical tea picker’s salary is 85 taka (around $1) per day, but that depends on meeting the garden owners’ daily harvest target of 20kg. If they don’t, their salary is docked.
Workers get no pay for days they are ill, either, which is often. Tea gardens have no water or toilet facilities, so pickers usually rely on streams and hand-dug wells for drinking water and go to the toilet outside. The sickness these cause becomes a cycle.
We were extremely concerned about reaching tea pickers with clean water and toilets, but garden owners are notoriously protective and controlling of their workforce. It was only through the negotiations of our local partner, IDEA, that we were finally able to gain access in 2010 and become the first NGO to work directly with picking communities.
Women collecting water for washing from a tubewell at Gulni Tea Estate in Sylhet District, Bangladesh. WaterAid/ Abir Abduallah
Starting in two gardens, we installed tapped tube wells and private toilets, and taught workers about hygiene and their rights to these services. With critical support from the HSBC Water Programme, this work soon grew to cover 14 gardens.
Encouraging tea garden owners to let us build these services took time, and convincing them to fund the facilities themselves has taken even longer. But as managers see the benefits of providing workers with their rights, attitudes are shifting.
Now, more gardens are expressing voluntary interest in schemes that will improve the conditions of tea gardens across the region.
A new start
In the communities themselves, access to clean water and toilets is already changing lives – including for the next generation.
Gita, 12, lives in Gulni Tea Estate, Sylhet District. Her mother is a tea picker who never had the opportunity to go to school, so Gita is eager to learn as much as she can. But drinking dirty water used to make her sick, and she would regularly miss her classes.
Now that her estate has water and toilets, she is healthier, and has been able to reclaim her education, finishing primary school and enrolling in secondary.
As part of the youth hygiene committee set up by WaterAid and IDEA, Gita now teaches others basic hygiene and about the importance of clean water. “Every person has human rights – water, sanitation, education,” she says. “Now, I feel confident in my future."