Over 13,000 Tea Garden Workers’ Eyes Tested in Bangladesh

International Tea Day (May 21) is a chance to celebrate the history, health benefits, and economic importance of tea and raise awareness of its role in fighting poverty in low- and middle-income countries, while campaigning to make the production of England’s national drink more sustainable.

Bangladesh is one of the largest tea producers in the world, producing 103 million kilogrammes in 2023. International eye care charity Orbis, is focusing on the eye health needs of tea garden workers from 12 estates in Sylhet. During a period of six months, over 13,000 received eye tests, almost 730 people were provided with medicine for eye ailments, and over 700 people with refractive error were prescribed glasses. In addition, almost 350 cataract surgeries were conducted.

This year, International Tea Day is highlighting women and their role in the tea sector. Around the world, particularly within low- and middle-income countries, women often have poorer access to eye health services. Global figures indicate that 55% of those living with vision loss are women and girls, translating to an additional 112 million more women than men. Within this project, over half of those receiving eye tests, surgeries and glasses were women and girls, and more than 60% of medicines delivered were to female patients.  

In Bangladesh, tea gardens are split between two significant regions: Sylhet in the northeast, and Chittagong, in the south. Sylhet is home to over 150 tea estates, employing around 600,000 people. Here, the tea garden workers, mostly women and belonging to minority groups, spend around six hours a day picking leaves to be sorted, processed and exported all over the world. Despite the long hours, and labor-intensive work, pickers are paid very little. According to a recent study, 74% of Sylhet tea garden workers still live below the poverty line, relying upon the tea garden management for housing, food, education and medical facilities, and land to cultivate their own crops.

Orbis has been working with their partners in the Sylhet district since 2017. While conducting work in the local area, staff met many tea garden workers with eye conditions, the most common being refractive error which can make it difficult to see for their work, but can be fixed with a simple pair of glasses. 3% of those screened in the initial outreach had cataracts – three times more than the national average. However, without a nearby eye care facility, it’s difficult for tea garden workers to access the treatment they need, detrimentally affecting their ability to earn a living and support their families.

In October 2023, Orbis, with funding from the Guernsey Overseas Aid and Development Commission, began a one-year project, aiming to reduce visual impairment and avoidable blindness in twelve tea estates in Sylhet district. To undertake the project, Orbis and their partner, Adhunik Eye Hospital, trained eight volunteers as Community Eye Care Workers, all local women from tea estate communities, to screen tea pickers and their families for eye issues.

The project has also trained 115 community leaders, and staff from the tea garden health centres, on the importance of looking after your vision and where to seek help if something doesn’t feel right. Health centres, schools and other communal spaces, have also been provided with the equipment they need to carry out primary screening and refer those with eye conditions.

eye test
An Orbis worker conducts an eye test at the Malnicherra Tea Estate in Sylhet, Bangladesh. (Photo: Sahos Mostafiz)

Yet there is still more to be done to protect workers’ eyesight - all over the world. According to a recent report from the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and IAPB, approximately 12 million working aged people are living with a vision impairment of occupational origin, and an estimated 3.5 million occupational eye injuries occur each year. Shockingly, workers with a vision impairment are 30.2% less likely to be in employment, compared to those without, and likely to face extreme poverty.

Similarly, tea estate workers who are not able to see well, and their families who rely on them, are also likely to lose their livelihoods. If people are unable to work due to preventable blindness and visual impairment, it will not be possible to break the poverty cycle.

It is thanks to the Guernsey Overseas Aid and Development Commission, that Orbis and their partners are able to establish services which will help to improve the eyesight, and by extension, the lives, of many tea estate workers in Bangladesh.


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