Fifty-four-year-old Md Belal Hossain works at a small bakery in Ibrahimpur, Mirpur. He has learnt only one trade in his life—making bread, biscuits, cakes, and confectionery items on the dirty floor of grim bakeries. In his career, he has never seen the floor spotless, the workers maintain proper hygiene while making moulds for cakes or breads, use gloves or aprons for their own health and safety—let alone earn a good salary to support their family.
As a 20-year-old unmarried young man, he first joined the sector with a monthly salary of Tk 1,500-1,600. This has now increased to Tk 7,000. Like many others of his profession, Belal has worked in factories where rainwater flooded the premises and cockroaches and mice would scurry around. In most cases, he had to make packets of biscuits, breads or cakes on a damp floor.
Today, he has a six-member family dependent on him. With his meagre income, he was never able to bring his family to live with him in Dhaka. He works 11 to 12 hours every day, and has to skip most important family occasions as it is too expensive for him to go home to Noakhali.
Belal, in his fifties, lives in a shared room in his factory, with 24 of his co-workers. “My employer provides me food, Tk 30-40 as daily allowances and a soap every month. I don’t have any holidays, but I can take three days of leave every month,” says Belal. “After deducting my monthly expenses, I send around Tk 4,000 to my family. Although it is tough to maintain a family with this money, my children have accepted their fate that they have a poor father,” says Belal. “One day, maybe my luck will change and I will get a job in a factory, which will pay me at least Tk 10,000-12, 000,” he says wistfully.
Apart from the 60 big factories listed with Bangladesh Auto Biscuit and Bakery Manufacturers Association (BABBMA), there are approximately 5,000 semi-automated or manual small bakeries. Bakers like Belal constitute informal workers who do not have the legal protection and benefits enjoyed by workers in the formal sector. They work in small factories, where the number of workers is less than 50. Despite years of experience, they have low levels of skills and productivity, with no training or scope for innovation. They have all but accepted that they have to work long hours in return for a paltry and irregular income.
The safety conditions in these factories are atrocious, to say the least. Most workers don’t use heat resistant safety gloves while handling the hot surfaces of warm trays, ovens, and cooking pans. Moreover, according to Professor Dr Shahriar Hossain, chief executive officer at the Environment and Social Development Organisation (ESDO), no standards are maintained for how many hours a worker can work at a stretch in the oven of a baking factory.
“For example, for the types of ovens used here in Bangladesh, the standard practice is to use them for two hours. After this period, a worker needs to take a break for half an hour or more. In these bakeries, workers work for nearly 12 hours at a stretch and an overwhelming majority of them don’t get any significant time off, except for dinner. Such long and unusual working hours cause physical and mental fatigue,” says Dr Hossain.
Though some factories use air coolers to control the excessive heat while baking, these too can do little to lower the heat. According to Belal, those who work in the day shift or are new to this profession cannot tolerate this excessive heat, as a result of which, many faint.
According to Dr Hossain, the constant heat generated by the oven can cause calorie loss from the body, which immediately results in depletion of energy. “Under these conditions, if workers don’t eat enough—or consume the right kind of food—they will suffer from malnourishment, anaemia or headache. The risks increase if they have already developed high blood pressure or diabetes. The vapour they inhale can create breathing difficulties too. Breathing floor dust causes the workers asthma and eye irritation,” he says.
In addition to that, in such factories, the workers are also forced to use different toxic chemicals to make cakes and biscuits to make them look appealing. Most of the time, the workers use the chemicals manually which can easily cause skin diseases. “Apart from that, when the toxic substances enter our bodies through our inhalation process, the food we take, or our lymph nodes, they can cause kidney, lung or other chronic diseases in the long run,” Dr Hossain adds.
Earlier this year, the Ministry of Labour and Employment made an announcement that an entry level worker of the bakery, bread and confectionery sector will get Tk 5,940 from July onwards. Since 2012, the minimum wage for bakers was only Tk 2,120. However, in most small factories, owners and employees alike seem oblivious of this development.
Mohammad Mintu, an accountant at Rank Bakery, also in Ibrahimpur, Mirpur, says that he doesn’t know about any such order. In his factory, entry level workers get Tk 4,000-5,000, although they work 12 hours at a stretch.
16-year-old Sajjad Hossain, a packaging staff at Eva Bakery in the same area, informs Star Weekend that he gets nearly Tk 4,000 a month, for completing 1,500-2,000 packets of biscuit every day. Sajjad seems happy with his wages, having never earned more than this in his life. Like Sajjad, a number of child labourers are also working to create moulds manually.
When asked about the lack of implementation of the wage increase, Shafiqur Rahman Bhuiyan, President of BABBMA, points the fingers at the workers. “Small bakery workers should be more aware of their rights and their wages. We could create a board or direct the owners to declare their wages. But it is not possible for us to visit the factories individually and supervise whether they are following the order or not,” he argues.
However, the workers, who are not covered by the country’s labour law, say they have no real platform to raise their voice against any exploitation by their employers.
When asked about the scope of unionising in these factories, Director General at the Department of Labour, Shibnath Roy, says, “These are very small and if there are unions or committees, at least 10 of the workers will take lead to guide other workers and production in these units will be hampered seriously”.
So, then, what protections are available for these workers? According to the Department of Labour, there are no specific benefits for the workers who work in the bread, biscuit or confectionery sector. But, like other informal sector workers, if a bakery worker becomes physically unfit or dies, the labour department usually helps them get compensation worth Tk 2 lakhs. This money comes from a welfare fund that was created in 2016. Every year, at least 2,500 workers in the country receive this compensation.
“If a worker applies to us, a committee scrutinises his application and as per its recommendation, the minister or secretaries approve these and give final confirmation. The money is provided to them directly through their mobile banking account, so that nobody can interfere in the process and grab the money from the poor worker,” he adds.
Workers like Belal, after so many sacrifices, are stuck in a dead-end job unable to fulfil the needs of their families. Rather, they take it for granted that their life’s work in the bakeries is all their due though they cannot afford their own bread and butter.