A minimum wage that doesn’t ensure minimum dignity

A government-led, tripartite board, the minimum wage board for tea workers has continued the 170-year-old "tradition" depriving workers by recommending an unfair wage structure, which conflicts with existing laws. Speakers at a virtual dialog yesterday said that.

They highlighted that the minimum wage for tea workers in the country is the lowest of all the major sectors and was inadequate for basic living standards.

At a dialogue entitled "Tea workers' wage: Present structure, challenges" speakers expressed concern about the recommendation.

The event was organized by Society for Environment and Human Development in partnership with Power and Participation Research Centres (PPRC), and Bangladesh Cha Sramik Union.

Philip Gain, director at SEHD, spoke in the keynote speech. He stated that the tripartite body was formed almost five years late and recommended the same daily wage rates, Tk. 117, Tk. 118, and Tk. 120 as have been offered for the past two-and-a-half-years.

Bangladesh Tea Association claims they pay a daily wage of Tk 403. This amount is in cash or in kind. Gain stated that they included costs such as house rent, healthcare, overtime, and other costs that cannot be considered wages under section 45 of Labour Law.

He said, "In our calculations workers get no more Tk 200 including wages or allowances."

He stated that the recommendation increased the wage negotiation period between Bangladesh Tea Association (Bangladesh Cha Sramik Union) to three years, from the previous two years.

"We have reached low-income status, and the government is working hard to make it a middle-income country." Is the wage board in line with the government's goals and objectives? Dr Hossain Zillur Rahman was the executive chairman of PPRC and chaired the dialogue.

Dr Binayak Sen (Director General of Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies, BIDS) stated that tea workers live in a ghetto where they are denied all amenities.

"The tea worker's wage structure is too low when compared to the poverty line in 2016, the minimum wage for other sectors such as garment, leather and the living wage in the country."

Professor Dr MM Akash, from the department of economics at Dhaka University, stated that "The owners and workers set the Tk 120 daily wage for 2019-2020 while negotiating. The wage should have increased by 15% for 2022 and beyond, given the 5 percent inflation rate each year. This factor should be taken into consideration, and the recommended wage is lower that the previous wage.

In India, a worker earns Tk 238 per hour while Sri Lankan workers get Tk 423 per day. Why can't they pay higher wages while still being profitable? He asked.

He also argued that tea garden owners should make their profit margins public.

Uttam Kumar Die, a Supreme Court lawyer, stated, "The labour law clearly states that allowances don't constitute wages. Legally, there is no way for the minimum wage board of Bangladesh to violate the existing labour laws. Multiple High Court rulings have stated that benefits and allowances cannot be used to replace wages.

He said that it is discriminatory for workers to be denied service benefits under section 28 of the Labour Law of 2006. However, workers who work in tea were denied the benefit by the 2018 amendment of this law.

"Besides, tea workers are not allowed to take casual leave, which is discriminatory. All women workers are exempted from the law and allowed to work eight weeks before giving birth, except for women tea workers.

Tapan Datta, a labor leader, stated that the wage structure as declared by the wage board was an injustice to workers and clearly benefits the owners because it does not consider workers' rightful demands.

Rambhajan Kairi (executive advisor to BCSU) and NripenPaul (acting general secretary of BCSU) participated in the dialogue.

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