Land to Tea Workers, Generational Occupants without Titles

Land to Tea Workers, Generational Occupants without Titles

Organization type: 
nonprofit/ngo/citizen sector
$50,000 - $100,000
Project Summary
Elevator Pitch

Concise Summary: Help us pitch this solution! Provide an explanation within 3-4 short sentences.

Tea plantation workers are the most marginalized occupational group in Bangladesh. They own none of the land that has been their home for over 150 years. Descendants of indentured laborers, they live in poverty and a captive situation without entitlements. Land ownership will greatly improve their livelihood.

About Project

Problem: What problem is this project trying to address?

British companies brought workers from different states of India more than 150 years ago to work in the tea gardens in the Sylhet region of what is now Bangladesh. As citizens of Bangladesh they are free to live anywhere in the country. The reality is they have been a “captive labor force” for four generations. The prime reason for this is that they have never owned the homes and land they use. The state owns the land granted to the companies and private owners. The companies and individuals owning the tea gardens will be able to exploit the workers as long as the tea workers continue to live in “labor lines” established on government land, and the owners have full control over the land granted for tea cultivation. This is a ridiculous injustice on tea workers and should be stopped. Furthermore, while the daily cash pay of a tea worker in India is USD1.5 and USD2.5 in Sri Lanka it is around 70 cents in Bangladesh. The cash pay in Bangladesh must double soon to be sufficient. Additionally, the poor education standard of tea company school, and the scarcity of government primary schools means children of tea workers are bound to become tea workers themselves.

Solution: What is the proposed solution? Please be specific!

The tea plantation workers (118,000) and their communities (approximately 500,000) are the most marginalized minorities in Bangladesh. Socially, economically and culturally excluded from the rest of the Bangladeshi society and descendants of indentured laborers, the tea workers have no title to land they have lived on for four generations and they remain captive to “labor lines” on the tea estates. Their situation is aggravated by extremely low wages compared to the wages of the Indian and Sri Lankan tea workers. With ongoing investigation and reporting by SEHD on the conditions of the tea workers, one reality becomes obvious, the tea workers must have titles to the land they live on and the land they till to compensate for their food deficit. The land area for tea cultivation is 115,629.76 hectares (285,727.36 acres)—all government land granted to the companies/owners of 163 tea estates. The annual rent for use of the government land is infinitesimal, viz., Tk.110 (1.5 USD) per acre. Only 45% of the land is actually under tea cultivation. If the tea workers get titles to at least the homesteads and the paddy land they currently use, their lives will significantly improve. A large portion of land granted for tea but used for rubber and monoculture plantations for commercial gains of the owners can also be awarded to the workers. A combination of research, media reporting, advocacy, and court action (i.e. writ in the High Court) can bring change. This is indicated in work already done.
Impact: How does it Work

Example: Walk us through a specific example(s) of how this solution makes a difference; include its primary activities.

SEHD’s research, publications, filming, photography exhibitions, writing of special reports in the newspapers, television programs, dialogue, legal support to tea workers’ union, and training of the leaders of tea workers so far have had significant impacts for the entire workers’ community who are now better paid. In the initial years of work SEHD established solid information bases and trained the community leaders of the tea workers on their rights to property, especially land. With two books, one 45-minute documentary film, a photography exhibition, and many published reports that are widely used, SEHD has opened up a new information frontier on the tea estates. SEHD's information and lobby had clear influence on the Minimum Wage Board of the government in its work on the wage structure of the tea plantation workers. The trade union and community leaders, whom SEHD trained and kept informed about the production price and sale price of tea, became better negotiators with the Bangladesh Tea Association (owners) and different government agencies. Previously, daily cash pay of the tea workers increased by only Tk.2 every two years. In July 2009, it increased from Tk.32.50 to Tk.48 plus increased fringe benefits including bonus. SEHD’s assistance to the first ever elected central committee of Bangladesh Tea Workers’ Union (the only bargaining agent of the tea workers, and the largest trade union in the country) after it was unlawfully dismissed by the government was crucial to get a High Court verdict in its favor, an indication that the access issue of tea workers to property can be taken to the court. With significant information and analyses on tea workers’ conditions widely used and a network established, SEHD is in a perfect position to plan future actions.
About You
Society for Environment and Human Development (SEHD)
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Section 1: About You
First Name


Last Name


Section 2: About Your Organization
Is your initiative connected to an established organization?

Organization Name

Society for Environment and Human Development (SEHD)

Organization Phone

880-2-9121385; mobile: 01715009123

Organization Address

4/4/1(B) (3rd Floor), Block-A, Lalmatia, Dhaka-1207

Organization Country

, XX

How long has this organization been operating?

More than 5 years

Your idea
Country your work focuses on
Do you have a patent for this idea?


a.Mapping, analysis & documentation: Mapping of government land granted for tea cultivation but used for other purposes will be done. Such land amounts to 45% of total land granted for tea.
b.Court actions: The rights issue of the tea workers to land granted for tea but used for other purposes will be taken to High Court through writ petition(s) or other legal measures. Reputed lawyer(s) will be engaged in such court cases. SEHD already engaged one in a writ petition on behalf of the elected central committee of Bangladesh Tea Workers’ Union receiving a favorable judgment.
c.Training & coalition building: The community leaders of the tea workers, human rights actors, and government officials will be trained on property rights issues. Coalitions will be built among tea workers, human rights groups, NGOs, media & the government agencies.
d.Media campaign
Factor preventing success:
a.Resistance from political, business, and military elites who benefit most from the chiefly available land for tea cultivation
b.Isolated and weak trade union


First year:
•A map of land mismanaged and used by the tea planters for purposes other than tea production and concurrently the land available to be given to tea workers sends a strong message to the government functionaries and owners that the tea workers must get land ownership.
•Training and coalition building provide a social infrastructure and develop solidarity among tea workers and others concerned.

Second year:
•Media exposure of anomalies related to land use and conditions of the tea workers strengthen the voices of the tea workers.
•The government adopts clear policies to initiate public schooling for the children of the tea workers.
•The tea workers become more visible and get greater political protection.

Third year:
•The court passes ruling/directives to the state that eventually creates grounds for distribution of government land among the tea workers.
•The wages of the tea workers is given pragmatic consideration by the Minimum Wage Board of the government and the cash pay, fringe benefits, etc. add up to a level close to the wages that the Indian and Sri Lankan workers get.

How many people will your project serve annually?

More than 10,000

What is the average monthly household income in your target community, in US Dollars?

Less than $50

Does your project seek to have an impact on public policy?


If so, how?

The state of Bangladesh already has statutes—Land Reform Action Program (LRAP) of 1987 and Agricultural Khas Land Management and Settlement Policy 1997—that guide the government to distribute public land among the landless people. Exposé of the hard facts about the government land that can be made available to the tea workers, as well as court verdicts, mediation, dialogues, and creation of a new generation of skilled trade union leaders and human rights actors will influence the government to adopt/implement policies for the redistribution of public land to the tea workers. Furthermore, these would promote implementation of and amendment to the labour law, increase pay, and take measures for public schooling for the children of the tea workers.

What stage is your project in?

Operating for 1‐5 years

Does your organization have a board of directors or an advisory board?


Does your organization have any non monetary partnerships with NGOs?


Does your organization have any non monetary partnerships with businesses?

Does your organization have any non monetary partnerships with government?

Please tell us more about how partnerships could be critical to the success of your innovation.

We have already developed a strong network among the tea workers’ communities, labor unions, human rights groups, law professionals, and the media to work on tea workers’ issues. Our publications, film, and visuals have gained credibility and provided us the ability to attend critical issues regarding the tea workers and the tea industry. However, we face difficulties particularly in dealing with the Bangladesh Tea Workers’ Union, the only bargaining agent for tea workers with 80,000 members. Isolated from the national level trade union movement, the tea workers’ trade union remains weak and under strong influence of tea companies and the government functionaries. To overcome this we are promoting the idea of having more than one union in the tea industry. We also have done groundwork to develop partnerships with the valley/panchaet committees in different tea growing areas. In our recent public events, representatives of the owners and government have actively participated, an indication that they have respect for our work. Our active partnerships with all these groups is very important for achieving the goal to have the tea workers gaining ownership of land and property.

We would like to learn more about how your initiative is financially supported. Please explain your business plan/revenue model

About five years ago SEHD started to seriously concentrate on the issues concerning the tea workers as part of it’s regular investigation, research, and filming. SEHD’s main program, “Environmental Research and Documentation (ERDP) has been funded by Misereor in Germany as well as ICCO and CORDAID in the Netherlands. In 2007, we competed for a grant from the Australian High Commission, Dhaka under its Human Rights Small Grants Scheme 2007-2008 to work exclusively for the tea workers and the indigenous peoples of Bangladesh. We got the grant [used in 13 months in 2008-2009], which allowed us to create and strengthen a new generation of skilled human rights actors and community leaders particularly among the tea workers and the indigenous peoples. We implemented all activities with a modest grant that we got from the Australian Government. This has been very helpful for us to articulate issues of the tea workers in particular.

With the resource constraint of our main project, we are now looking for additional resources so that we can effectively engage in work for tea workers’ rights. Sales from books, documentary films, and photos that we have on tea workers brings us some revenue, part of which will be spent for work among the tea workers.However, we also believe that when the workers see the aspiration of getting land becomes a reality they will also support this initiative financially with subscription.

The Story
What was the defining moment that led you to this innovation?

I had an initial impression about the condition of the tea plantation workers and their communities. But as I started to visit the tea gardens to do a systematic investigation about them and tried to understand how the tea industry is run, I began to learn stunning facts about the tea workers and the industry.

One day, some four years back, Rambhajan Kairi, a young trade union leader who previously was a tea worker, was giving me a tour through the graphic tea gardens in Maulvibazar, a district that has the highest number of tea gardens. We stopped by one place to talk to the women who were working. I also took pictures of them in the garden. In the meantime the manager of the garden arrived and angrily told Rambhajan Kairi that he had made a big mistake bringing me to the garden. A school teacher in a company tea garden school who was standing by, whom we did not know, was also blamed and lost his job (!), which he got back through our intervention. I tried to explain to the manager that it was not anybody’s fault. I came to see the tea gardens and if he had any grievance, it should be with me. With anger he said no one was allowed to take pictures of the tea gardens or the workers and that I should leave his garden immediately. I realized a man with camera is a suspect and is very unwelcome to the tea gardens. I was shocked. It was at this moment I realized that the story of the tea workers must be told to the rest of the country. We initiated an in-depth investigation of their situation. We began to work on a documentary film and photography exhibition(s) on the condition of the tea workers. After three years of investigation, research, filming, and photography, we developed books, reports, film and thousands of photographs and went public in 2009. The owners became angry at the exposure but participated en masse in book launching, photography exhibitions, and seminar on the tea workers that we organized.

We continue to come across stunning facts and stories about the workers and the tea industry relating to land abuse, profit margins that the owners make, and manipulation within the tea workers’ union, and understand there is lot more work to be done.

Tell us about the social innovator—the person—behind this idea.

During the past two decades I have worked as an investigative reporter, writer, and editor. I also established [in 1993] the Society for Environment and Human Development (SEHD), a non-profit Bangladeshi organization to promote investigative reporting, engage in action-oriented research, assist people think and speak out against injustice. Since establishment of SEHD we have been through complex times and risks while attending to issues of national and community interest. However, we remain vocal about the danger of control of nature that happens in different facets and we have always advocated political protection of the marginalized and excluded groups.

As an investigative reporter I have worked on many issues at personal risks. Achievements in some instances have been landmark as in my work on forest and indigenous peoples. Twenty years of reporting in this particular field has generated scores of investigative reports, several books, documentary films, and photography exhibitions with a focus on the negative effects of monoculture plantations funded by Asian Development Bank and World Bank. These two international financial institutions have completely withdrawn from the forestry sector in Bangladesh since 2007. This is a satisfying development for me as we had been telling these international financial institutions that they were ruining the forests by funding forestry projects. The most recent area of my investigation has been the miseries of the tea workers. Our investigation and analysis have played a clear role in the significant increase in the cash pay of the tea workers who are now more visible.

The investigative research that I have been associated with has broadened the access of the public and media to information; influenced public policy and the policy of the international financial institutions; and assisted people make informed opinions and choices on different issues. As of 2010 my productions include 30 books, a few hundred investigative reports, five survey reports, five documentary films, five photography exhibitions, and a few hundred thousand photographs—all available for public use.

Furthermore, an important mission in my life and for SEHD has been to train a new generation of professional journalists, community leaders, human rights activists, environmentalists, and young minds. So far we have trained about 1,000 journalists of more than 100 newspapers and almost equal number of community leaders and activists.

Three important fellowship awards—Ashoka, Alfred Friendly Press Fellowship, and Yale World Fellows Program—affirmed my ideas and assisted me enormously to achieve the accomplishments I can mention today.

How did you first hear about Changemakers?

Personal contact at Changemakers

If through another source, please provide the information.

Approximately 50 words left (400 characters).

Which (if any) of the following strategies apply to your organization or company (check as many as apply)

Policy advocacy to strengthen property rights or increase security of tenure, Other.

Please explain how your work furthers one or many of the above strategies (if you selected “other”, please explain your strategy)

SEHD develops strategic materials (books, reports, documentary films, images; see to get an idea about) out of it investigations and action-oriented research that the organization itself and others use for advocacy with intellectual clarity and facts in hand. Its another strategy is to trains/fertilizes mind through skill sharing.