Anger and frustration among workers of BRTC depots have long been growing over their unpaid salaries, which remain due for up to 16 months in some cases.
The Bangladesh Road Transport Corporation has 21 depots across the country -- 19 for buses and two for trucks. Of them, workers' salaries are due in 17, depots sources said.
And with their back against the wall, some 250 workers of the state-run agency's Joar Sahara depot in Dhaka went on an indefinite strike yesterday.
Some 3,500 BRTC employees, including drivers, get salaries and other benefits like that of a government employee. But under the current system, the salaries and benefits of a depot employee has to be paid from the earnings of that particular depot.
The lion's share of the depots' earnings comes from leasing out buses to private entities and organisations, including educational institutions. The depots provide the drivers, the fuel, and look after vehicle maintenance.
High officials of the BRTC said the depots have been struggling to pay the employees after the government implemented a new pay scale in 2016.
Workers, however, claimed that corruption of some BRTC officials, including those running the deports, was to blame for their sufferings.
STRIKE IN JOAR SAHARA
The drivers and staffers of Joar Sahara depot went on a strike early yesterday morning demanding nine months' arrears.
This resulted in 68 buses being taken off the streets which affected at least three city bus service routes and transport for organisations.
The depot's manager said 26 of the buses were supposed to serve staffers and students of different institutions.
In July, transport workers of the depot had gone on an indefinite strike demanding arrears of seven months. They had called off their strike after the authorities gave them one-month's arrears, Eid bonuses and assurance of paying the rest soon.
However, the situation did not improve and the arrears piled up, workers said.
“I could not pay rent in the last three months. We are passing tough times and at times, it's unbearable,” a driver at the depot said wishing not to be named.
He said he was happy after getting the government job in 2010. He had a decent life with his family of six but things started to change for him and his colleagues in 2017 when three months' salaries became due.
“Whenever we ask for our pay, the authorities say that the depot's expenditure is more than its income, which is causing the delay. Things will change when new buses are added to the depot,” said another driver.
The situation had become so bad that landlords in Khilkhet area now refuse to rent out houses to BRTC drivers, a number of drivers said.
The workers wrote to BRTC chairman twice in October. “The chairman promised us thrice to pay our dues but he did not keep his promise,” a worker said.
Joar Sahara Depot Manager Noor-e-Alam on Saturday said they had over eight months' salaries unpaid.
He said workers' salaries were due in all depots, with the exception of Kalyanpur depot.
Before the new pay scale was introduced, the Joar Sahara depot needed around Tk 28 lakh to pay the workers. Now, around Tk 50 lakh is needed, Noor said, adding that the depot's income has not increased but the cost of vehicle maintenance has gone up.
Ignoring warnings of tough action from the authorities, the workers yesterday refused to sit for negotiations with two BRTC directors at the depot. They said they would only sit with the BRTC chairman.
Talking to The Daily Star around 1:30pm, BRTC Chairman Farid Ahmed Bhuiyan said they were trying to resolve the problem through discussions and if it failed, they would take legal action against the workers.
“Actually, seven to eight [workers] are doing this [strike] to embarrass the government.”
Farid visited the depot around 4:00pm and assured the workers that the arrears would be paid within three months when new buses join the fleet.
The workers said those were empty promises and they would continue with the strike.
The Daily Star could not reach Farid after his meeting with the workers.
A driver of Bogura depot said his six-months' salaries were due and it was putting his family in strain.
“We are driving buses regularly but the authorities say that the depot's income is insufficient,” said the driver.
“I live in Bogura while my wife and children have to live with my parents in Narayanganj. We are going through a difficult time.”
A driver of Rangpur depot said the BRTC owes them 16 months' pay. He urged this correspondent to write about the tough time they were going through.
Omar Faruk, Rangpur depot manager, said, “Yes, there are some dues. But I have to see the file to be able to say the exact number of months.” He asked this correspondent to call him 30 minutes later for more information.
He did not receive the calls made.
Asked about the unpaid salaries in other depots, the BRTC chairman over phone around 1:30pm said two to three months' salaries were due in every depot.
But moments later he changed his statement.
“Salary payments of seven or eight depots are up to date. Two to three months' pay were due in seven to eight depots and five to six months' salaries were due in three to four depots, including Joar Sahara,” he claimed.
ALLEGATIONS OF CORRUPTION
More than a dozen workers of Joar Sahara, Rangpur and Bogura depots said unabated corruption was the reason behind their plight.
Depot managers, in connivance with some BRTC high ups, were stealing BRTC's earnings, they alleged.
They said the BRTC earns from each trip made by a leased-out bus. They claimed that often contractors make underhand dealings with BRTC officials and show on paper fewer trips made. The depot managers misappropriate money for fuel and maintenance, they alleged.
Joar Sahara Depot Manager Noor refuted all the allegations. “It is not possible to operate fewer trips than the contracted one as the BRTC drivers are there and they are aware of the contact,” he said.
On occasions, contractors are forced to make fewer trips due to many reasons, including weather and traffic, he said.
Brushing aside the allegations of corruption, BRTC Chairman Farid said its head office did not take a single penny from Joar Sahara deport in the last 15 months. It rather paid the depot Tk 1 crore.