More than 32,000 substitute and temporary workers of the 25 state-run jute mills that were closed down recently have been denied compensation packages though many of them had worked at the mills for decades.
Since the closure of the mills on July 1, the authorities laid off 24,886 permanent workers who are entitled to receive due wages, gratuity and severance pay based on gratuity.
But no allocation was made for the 23,842 substitute (badli) and 8,463 temporary workers who toiled at the mills on a daily-wage basis.
One of them, Altaf Hossain, joined Star Jute Mills Limited in Khulna as a "badli" worker in 2009.
"A permanent worker who joined the mill in 2009 will get Tk 7 lakh to 9 lakh as gratuity and severance pay. I worked at the mill for the same period but I am not getting even one taka as compensation," lamented Altaf.
Like him, Md Fariduddin, a temporary worker at Crescent Jute Mills Limited in the same district, was upset.
"I have worked in various sections of the mill for 13 years. I served as a clerk at the factory's accounts department for the last six years...
"However, as a temporary worker, I was paid on the basis of no work-no pay whereas all my colleagues in the department were permanent staffers," said Farid who studied up to 12th grade.
The status of these workers has been clearly defined in section 4(3) and 4(5) of Bangladesh Labour Law, 2006.
According to the law, a worker can be regarded as "badli" if he is recruited in place of a permanent worker who remains absent temporarily.
It also states a temporary worker is someone who is recruited for a temporary job that is to be finished within a limited period.
Section 4(8) of the law says probation period for technical workers should be three months and that for non-technical workers six months, which can be extended up to a maximum of three more months under certain conditions.
Seeking anonymity, an official of Bangladesh Jute Mills Corporation (BJMC) described how the mill authorities kept doing injustice to these poor workers.
"We used to sack these workers just several days prior to completion of their three-month probation. Then we would reappoint them after a gap of several days. In this way, their probation period would never be completed and they would never get permanent status," he noted.
These poor workers have not been paid arrears from July 1, 2015, to January 1 this year and also wages for six weeks last year.
From March 25 this year, all the jute mills remained closed for one and a half months due to Covid-19 pandemic. The permanent workers got their weekly wages during the period, but the badli and temporary workers didn't get paid.
"In the previous years, if we attended the last working day before the start of a public holiday and then attended the first working day after the holiday, we used to get paid for the entire period," said Fariduddin.
"But this year, we were not paid for one and a half months… This put us in extreme financial hardship during the coronavirus shutdown."
Unlike the permanent workers, they did not get any bonus before the Eid-ul-Azha this year.
Moreover, they are in constant fear of getting evicted from the premises of the jute mills' labour quarters where they live in shanties.
"We have to leave this place if the mill authorities ask us to do so. But where will we go? Who will give us work amid this pandemic? We will have no other choice but to beg on the streets…," said Altaf of Star Jute Mills Limited.
Bangladesh Jute Mills Limited, one of the closed mills in Ghorashal, has sent eviction notices only to its substitute and temporary workers.
Confirming this, Matiur Rahman Mondol, project head at the mill, said, "The temporary and badli workers built shanties illegally on the mills' property and are using a large volume of water and electricity. The mill cannot pay their utility bills."
Asked about the BJMC's stance regarding these workers, its Chairman Md Abdur Rouf said, "These workers were not made permanent to save costs.
"The mills were already burdened with huge operational costs. So, it was not possible to recruit more permanent workers."
He further said, "According to section 26 of Bangladesh Labour Law, severance package is calculated on the basis of gratuity. These workers are not entitled to gratuity or severance pay. However, it is not true that these workers will get nothing from us. They will get their due wages and arrears."
Mohammad Lokman Hossain Mian, secretary at the jute and textiles ministry, said, "We are currently calculating their wages and other benefits. At this point, I can only say that all the workers will be paid in due course according to the labour law."