The desperate plight of workers in pandemic
They work in mills and factories, also under tin sheds in squalid conditions. They begin their long days commuting in crammed public transport vehicles or taking long walks, braving monsoon rain or summer heat. Despite working hard, most earn meagre sums and find it difficult to pay for rent, food, attire and their children's education. Securing medical care when sick is a dream for them to indulge in. They know little about leisure, as nearly all have to "opt for" the coveted paid overtime, which comes in handy to maintain their subsistence. Being able to see their loved ones during religious festivals is the only break they and their families enjoy in their dreary lives. With virtually no representation to the management of their factories (employers), the laws that are meant to protect them remain largely unenforced, putting them at the mercy of their supervisors and employers. They do not have insurance or any social protection to shield them when faced with arbitrary retrenchment, industrial accident or unemployment.
The workers of Bangladesh, both in formal and informal sectors, are the forsaken lot with almost no voice. Their powerlessness has been patently visible after the outbreak of Covid-19. The administrative decisions, plans and programmes, particularly the ill-conceived lockdowns imposed to combat the pandemic, failed to take into account how those would affect the workers who live hand-to-mouth and depend on daily earnings. The inefficiency of the public health system has disproportionately affected workers living on the margins of society. These issues came up at a Nagorik virtual public discussion on "Covid-19 and the rights and dignity of workers" held on August 10. The panellists included workers and leaders from a range of formal and informal trades, including apparel manufacturing, tea estates, tourism, hotels and restaurants, and rickshaw pullers.
There was unanimity that the government's decision pertaining to lockdown, without extending any kind of support to the daily wage earners, has pushed them to untold sufferings including starvation, malnutrition, ill health and indebtedness. The haste with which lockdown decisions and their revisions were arrived at forced the workers into "chaotic, hazardous, life-risking and Covid-spreading travel". In the first round of lockdown, the authorities announced that factories would be run with 30 percent workforce stationed in close vicinity of the factory premises. But the reality was different as, in many instances, the management recalled workers staying in rural areas who had to report back for fear of losing jobs. Needless to say, workers were summoned at a time when there was a complete shutdown of transport facilities. The belated and bizarre decision to allow transport services to resume only for 16 hours, ferrying the workers back to their workplaces during the second lockdown, again reflected the callousness, ineptness, and insensitivity of the authorities that inflicted immeasurable harm on the workers. "They did not learn anything from the first lockdown and put us into a perilous situation yet again. They think we are machines," said a garment worker panellist, narrating her harrowing journey during lockdown conditions.
Although opening mills and factories was at the top of the agenda of the captains of the industry and the state, such priority was not supplemented by ensuring easy access to Covid-testing and treatment facilities, including that of quarantining. While those on the frontlines, such as health professionals, law enforcers and civil administrators, were justifiably given priority in the vaccination drive, no one—including those in the powerful trade bodies—spent any energy in lobbying that workers rendering services during the pandemic should get priority in vaccination, too.
At the factory premises, compulsory wearing of masks could be largely implemented, but ensuring physical distance remained an issue. Several workers' organisations have highlighted the risk of cluster community transmission in factories. After the resumption of work, an increased incidence of infection was reported in various factories. The participants noted that several factories in Savar allegedly allowed operations despite being affected by Covid-19 infection. The participants claimed that, instead of reporting it, a section of the factories tended to suppress information on cases of infection, thereby making healthy workers vulnerable. The union leaders, validating workers' claims, stated that there is yet to emerge a set of enforceable guidelines to deal with issues of health risk, allowances, medical expenses and leave if workers are affected by Covid-19. It is disconcerting that apex trade bodies have thus far shied away from engaging on this critical issue.
Instead of taking responsibility for further check-ups, including conducting Covid-19 tests, workers recording above-normal temperatures were sent on leave, and that too, without pay. "How can you demand pay if you are sitting at home?" was the reply received by several affected workers from the management of a garments factory in Ulail, Savar. Questions were raised about the employers abiding by the prime ministerial offer of Tk 5,000 crore incentives to the export-oriented industries, which was tied to the former spending the amount on wages of workers.
The panellists claimed that, while state inaction in dealing with arbitrary termination, non-payment of wages and lack of ensuring physical protection of workers was palpable, the Industrial Police located in various industrial zones rather geared up its surveillance operation to ensure no "untoward incident" took place. This weighed in heavily against the legitimate expression of discontent by the affected workers. Workers' representatives claimed that at least five workers were called by the Industrial Police in Ashulia and detained for a whole day for "provocative posts" on social media between April and May 2020. They were released only after signing bonds to refrain from further posting. The workers' representatives also claimed that fictitious cases were lodged in all six industrial zones. Industrial Police sources claim that 444 workers participated in protests in the six zones in April (as reported in New Age on May 1, 2020). In several instances, factory authorities registered cases against a number of named and unnamed workers.
Meanwhile, in the tea industry, curiously categorised as "food" by the Tea Board for it to qualify as an "essential" sector, 150,000 tea estate workers continued their work in 166 tea gardens across the country during the pandemic (as per an April 12, 2020 report by The Daily Star). A union leader claimed that, demystifying the notion that "tea gardens are free from virus", deaths were reported with Covid-19 symptoms in several tea gardens. This led to the demand to bring the tea estate workers under a "general holiday". Many tasks performed in the tea estates are reportedly group tasks requiring workers to be in close proximity, thus increasing the risk of infection. The absence of hygienic toilets in worksites and the practice of drinking water using only their cupped palms also increase the risk. Non-payment of wages during the pandemic prompted tea estate workers to organise a "hungry long march" in Kulaura for two hours with placards and empty dishes.
The adverse effects of the pandemic has also taken a huge toll on the tourism, hotels and restaurant industry, throwing lakhs of workers out of work. Many turned into porters, rickshaw pullers and vegetable vendors. The informal nature of their employment acted as an impediment to securing any benefits from official quarters.
Transport sector workers have also been facing major hardships during the pandemic, and many families are on the brink of starvation. This is particularly depressing as about 70 lakh transport workers are believed to pay a sum of Tk 2,000 crores per year to the 300 transport workers unions that exist in the country. According to a report by Kaler Kontho in May 2020, it has been alleged that leaders of the federated unions are engaged in "list politics" in dispensing government assistance. A similar situation was faced by rickshaw pullers, who disproportionately bore the brunt of lockdowns. News reports were aplenty on law enforcers' degrading treatment of rickshaw pullers and seizure of their vehicles at a time when the latter had few options for fending for themselves. The ill-timed decision to ban battery-operated rickshaws has thrown 60 lakh families into dire poverty during the pandemic.
The workers had to bear huge social costs as well. Making up for lost income prompted families to withdraw children from schools and put them to work, swelling the ranks of child workers. Marrying young girls off was another form of coping strategy.
The Nagorik panellists felt that it was time the government accorded due priority to the livelihood and healthcare needs of the workers in its planning process, and framed insurance and other social protection measures. They also demanded that workers are given priority in vaccination and are provided with risk and transport allowances during the pandemic. The need to incorporate workers' representatives in framing decisions affecting workers was also highlighted.
The Nagorik webinar has shed light on the lived experiences of millions of workers, the principal protagonists of the country's development, during the pandemic. It is time the policymakers took due note of the flip side of the much-celebrated national development and ensured that all workers enjoy their rights, entitlements and dignity. Moreover, the government's approach to "life versus livelihood" during the Covid-19 pandemic needs to be changed to "life and livelihood".
C R Abrar and Anu Muhammad are academics, Barrister Jyotirmoy Barua is an advocate of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh and Rezaur Rahman Lenin is an academic activist.