An Eid devoid of joy for laid-off jute mill workers
While the whole country is celebrating Eid-ul-Azha, Khalishpur industrial area of Khulna is in dismal state.
Tens of thousands of jute mill worker families of the area are enduring extreme poverty resulting from sudden job loss. In fear of eviction from the labour quarters, these poor families are passing days in total uncertainty.
Md Shamsul Alam worked at Platinum Jubilee Jute Mills Limited for more than two decades. He is one of the 25,000 jute mill workers who lost jobs due to the government's decision of shutting down all the state run jute mills effective from July 1.
He said, "I have received one month's wages recently. It was around 10,000 taka. However, it was all spent within two days. As we used to receive wages irregularly, I had to borrow money from local usurers to continue my children's education. I also had to borrow daily necessities from the local stores on condition that I would pay them as soon as I get my wages. "
"On July 28, the local shopkeepers and creditors gathered at the main entrance of our quarters as they knew that we were going to get our wages on that day. So, we had to pay their dues before we even entered home," he added.
Md Imran Khan, a former colleague of Alam said, "Very few of us could bring more than a thousand taka home after paying all the dues. The worst part of the situation is that the local shopkeepers and service providers have stopped lending services and commodities to us as they know that we are jobless and we might have to leave this area any day."
As a result, many jute mill worker families had to literally starve on Eid day.
Md Ashraf Sheikh, a laid-off worker of The Crescent Jute Mills Limited, lives in a single room apartment at the mill's workers' quarter with his wife and two children. On Eid day, they only ate a plate of plain rice with a pinch of salt and red chillies.
He said, "I am almost 40 years old. Who will offer me a job when there are hundreds of thousands of unemployed youths? Despite this, with the help of my relative, I went to a couple of garment factories to apply for a job. I was shooed away from the gate."
Ashraf's wife Romela Khatun was a temporary worker in the jute mill to support the family. She is also jobless now.
"My wife is now looking for work as a domestic help. But, nobody is hiring domestic workers now. In desperation, she wanted to go to the town to beg for Qurbani meat and alms today (the first day of Eid, August 1) but I stopped her. However, I don't know for how long we shall be able to sustain without begging," lamented an emotional Ashraf.
Fearing extreme poverty during Eid, the workers had demanded salary of two months in one instalment so that they could save some money for their sustenance after paying all the dues. However, their request was not accepted.
"If we could save some money for our daily expenditures, we could have the time to look for jobs elsewhere. At present, we don't have any money left. Either we are starving or looking for jobs as day labourers," said Md Mizanur Rahman, a worker of Platinum Jubilee Jute Mills.
Besides poverty, the workers are also in constant fear of eviction and of harassment from the law enforcement agencies.
On July 6, two jute mill worker leaders were picked up by the police in plainclothes who took part in organising protests against the government's decision.
Later, they were shown arrested as suspects in a case filed for attacking and vandalising police box during a protest of jute mill workers that was held more than a year ago. After spending almost a month in jail, they have received bail on July 29 and got released next day. This incident struck fear among workers who took part in the protests against the decision of closing the mills.
"From the first day of September, the mill authority can evict us from the quarter any day. We need to demand extension of our stay immediately. Nevertheless, seeing Oliar's and Nur's fate (the two jailed leaders), nobody is coming forward to raise this demand," said Rahman.
"We have been living in this quarter for generations. We don't have any home or property anywhere in this country. Our children study in the schools located in the quarter. Our lives will be ruined if we are evicted this year," said Rahman.
Md Imran Khan, collegue of Rahman said, "The mill authority assured us that they would consider our situation. But, we haven't received any decision yet. We are passing every day in extreme poverty, in constant fear and uncertainty."