The end of the state-owned jute industry that has closed down 22 jute mills and laid off around 25,000 workers was a tragedy waiting to happen. Being laid off in the middle of a pandemic is a cruel blow to these workers who have families to feed and rents to pay. But it is not the pandemic that has led to the suffering of these people but decades of sheer neglect of the state-owned mills. Financial irregularities, inefficiency of resources, obsolete machinery and lack of any initiative to popularise the products produced made the end of these mills inevitable. This is made all the more obvious by the fact that jute mills in the private sector are making profits while the state-owned ones have, for decades, been running at a huge loss, with the government regularly bailing them out with rescue funds.
Why were these mills allowed to run at losses for years on end without any attempt to address the bottlenecks? Who really benefitted from these loss-making mills? Certainly not the tens of thousands of workers who have been protesting against the mismanagement of the Bangladesh Jute Mills Corporation (BJMC) and demanding their due wages for more than a year, only to be met by complete apathy. Hundreds of retired workers did not get their due benefits in the last ten years. The BJMC could do little to improve the industry, whereas it sucked thousands of crores of Taka from public funds.
The jute minister has said that financial benefits of all retired workers and wages and benefits of the current workers will be paid "in due time", and that a Tk 5,000 crore fund will be allocated for this purpose. We can only wonder why this was not done before. Why was the Mandatory Jute Packaging Act, 2010, which requires several agricultural products to be stored and marketed in jute bags, not enforced? There have been promises about the mills being modernised and reopened under public-private partnership, thus generating jobs that would be offered to the laid-off workers. Why didn't the modernisation take place at least ten years ago? In fact, how is there any guarantee that the land on which these mills are located, will not be sold off for the benefit of some, leaving the workers in the lurch?
The fate of the state-owned jute industry is representative of most of our state-owned enterprises, in which huge sums are invested, but are plagued with weak management, irregularities, no innovation, no product promotion and total disregard for workers' rights. The government, at this point, must first give the workers their dues and find ways to re-employ them. In the long run, the jute industry must be revived and cleansed of corrupt elements, with effective marketing of jute goods. If the government is committed to this cause, a revival of the golden fibre may be possible.