The proposed $2.0-million project for the welfare of tea workers of three districts in Sylhet division is a laudable initiative in prospect. Tea workers have remained a fringe population ever since the start of plantation of tea gardens in this part of the world during the colonial period. They live in this country but stay isolated from the mainstream society with their whole lives spent in drudgery. Illiterate and near outcast, they are not even aware that they have been exploited for generations and deserve better treatment. The question of organised demand for civil rights by them does not arise at all. As a population on the social fringe, their deprivation should have long drawn attention of the government but unfortunately it did not happen. Now that the government is going to take up the project, it will doubly be welcome for the involvement of four United Nations development partners including the International Labour Organisation (ILO).
The report carried in this newspaper highlights the project's salient point concerning the improvement of female tea workers' 'lifestyle'. Actually, it should be the living standard of such workers who work for daily wages with uncertain employment and no medical or other leaves. Tea is a popular beverage and its international market is swelling every year but people on whose labour the industry stands are grossly neglected even in the new millennium. This is despicable. But how to improve their living standard is a million-dollar question. For generations they have suffered the worst kind of exploitation enjoying hardly any right or opportunity a citizen of a country is entitled to. Without their social integration, the task of elevating their status will prove enormously difficult. Providing better housing in place of the shacks they now live in will be a small consolation.
Actually, the most important thing is to evaluate their contribution to the industry they work for and reward them accordingly. Training for female tea workers has come up for discussion. Yes, if properly imparted, it will raise their productivity and even diversify their skills but this should not be enough for the purpose. Workers who are still young should be selected for crash programme on education before involving them with the process. Once they become formally literate, they will be able to reap more benefits from the training. As for the children of the tea workers, education has to be made mandatory. Proper back-up measures and environment have to be created so that they do not drop out.
Any caring administration has to focus on pulling the backward communities out of poverty, exploitation and illiteracy. Tea workers certainly deserve special treatment not only because they are underclass but also because of their contribution to the country's economy. In this respect, the government has a big role to persuade the tea planters to share their profit with the workers more rationally. That the government and development partners have lent their hands to ameliorate the workers' condition should prompt them to do their part of the job too.