Tea Estates & Beyond

Part of our trip up to the Northern part of Bangladesh involved visits to ethnic minority schools. The schools themselves were very impressive and the students were very sweet, well behaved, and showed off their excellent math, dancing and singing skills.

One of the schools was set on a tea estate. These estates were established during the British colonial period – you know how Brits love their tea. Presumably cheap labor was difficult to find at that time, so the Brits got some of the low-caste Hindus to migrant down to work picking tea. The same migrant families have been living in the area for generations.

After Bangladesh’s independence there was a question about their right to citizenship as migrant laborers, even though they’d never seen their homeland. Eventually they gained citizenship, but their status in Bangladesh is still tenuous. They live isolated on the tea estates and the tea barons control their lives, while the government does little to interfere. NGOs that do want to come into the communities must be approved by the tea barons. If they had felt threatened by us wanting to come into the property then they wouldn’t have allowed us onto the property.

The tea laborers work nine hour days for the equivalent of fifty cents a day. Their housing is provided but keep in mind that this means about twenty people in one small room, similar to my housing conditions in Fiji – but permanently.

They said that alcoholism among the men was high, and that the tea barons promoted its use. They also chew on betel nuts – where the movie Beetlejuice got its name – making their teeth a reddish shade with its juice. Looking into online it says that it gives a mild high feeling and also makes you feel warm – probably nice on a rainy day in the tea fields.

Like most tea estates there is no such thing as organic. I saw the men with backpack sprayers and thought of what an impact that must have on their lives in addition to everything else.

This is the way of life for these communities – for generations.

Seeing these communities made me reflect on what, if anything, I can do to make their lives better. The first thought is supporting organic and fair trade teas. Now there are a couple of things about that. First, I live in a country that is known for their love of tea and certainly has not an option of getting anything close to fair trade or organic tea. So this would mean essentially boycotting tea altogether. Now would this really make any difference in the lives of these communities?

If we all boycotted standard tea, and were willing to pay more for fair trade organic tea, then perhaps eventually some producers would catch on. In all likelihood this would still only impact a very small number of tea estates in the world, as the majority of tea drinkers are in developing nations that aren’t willing or able to pay more for tea. So yes it is possible to make some difference, but it’s hard to say how much.

The second question is whether – and to what extent – change should be pushed in such communities. While I certainly don’t support poor working and living conditions – coming in to save the day also means using outside values to judge that a group of people need to change to be more like us.

While it is a completely different scenario, the indigenous tribes in the hills of Bangladesh come to mind. I was told by one of my colleagues here, who has traveled with BRAC to look into these communities, that they questioned to what extent they should interrupt their society. They are still very, very primitive – living with little clothing and being completely self-sustaining. My colleague learned while she was with them that the worst insult that you can give someone is to say, “May your teeth turn white,” since they are darkened by the betel juice for beauty as well as the high.

Now while the indigenous tribe is different than those on the tea estates, its still a question of how much we have a right to come in and change peoples lives for them.

It also reminds me of wearing hi jabs or burqas. I personally feel that making women cover their faces, or coercing them socially to do so, is not right. At the same time I realize that no matter what I say or do, eventually it will be up to those communities to make the change. Bangladesh is eight-five percent Muslim and they have advanced greatly in women’s rights. It also came from the women themselves.

True development always comes from the inside. So while I can buy organic fair trade tea and coffee, in the end it will take much, much more than that.

Food for thought,



  1. Tea on July 12, 2008 at 11:48 pm

    Having had some tea from bangladesh, I can say, the tea is without doubt great quality and I think they (the workers) should be compensated more fairly!

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