Does anyone care about the jute mill workers?
On April 21, we held a human chain programme at the Khulna Shivbari intersection demanding the payment of arrears of jute mill workers and reopening of closed jute mills. At the end of the programme, when everyone was getting on a truck to return to Khalishpur, a worker of Khalishpur Jute Mill named Kohinoor Begum (age 51/52 years) grasped my hand and said, "Baba, I will not get on the truck."
I was a little surprised and asked, "Why? How will you go?"
She replied, "I will walk around a bit. I cannot beg on familiar streets."
Kohinoor Begum, a worker at Khalishpur Jute Mill No 1, roamed around the crowded city seeking help. Other workers left for home after finishing the programme. But her hand, which was raised up earlier to claim her debt, went down asking for assistance.
The situation of a large number of workers, particularly women and elderly workers, in Khalishpur region, is similar to that of Kohinoor Begum. They are now helpless despite being skilled workers. After the closure of the jute mill, they have been living the life of a beggar without having a regular job. Their bold looks have faded away; many are almost unrecognisable today.
Alamgir, a former employee of Star Jute Mill, used to earn Tk 4,800-5,500 per week working six hours a day. Now, after 12 hours of night duty as a guard in Khulna city (9pm - 9am), he gets a monthly salary of only Tk 7,000. Additional six hours of duty in the day time provides him with Tk 5,000. How can a family survive on so little?
Today, a skilled jute mill worker of Khalishpur has to work as a night guard in the city. There is no security in their lives. That is why Reshma, daughter of Khalishpur Jute Mill worker Badsha, could not get admission in a new class despite being first in her class.
Many helpless workers have joined private jute mills where the daily allowance is Tk 180-220. They get only 20-30 minutes of meal break. There are no holidays. They don't have the right to form a trade union to represent their interests. As a result, workers have no freedom of speech.
If a worker has an accident while working, the mill authorities do not take any responsibility for it. There is no maternity leave. During the Covid-19 lockdown, almost all government and non-government workers in the country were given allowance, but no worker in any private jute mills received such assistance.
The safety situation of women workers is extremely poor. Many female workers are being sexually harassed, especially while working in the C-Shift (10pm to 6am). But there is no one to look after these issues. If you complain, it is not taken into account.
The largest private jute mill in the Khulna-Jashore region employs over 10,000 workers. The same situation prevails there. The union that the owner has formed to show the mill's foreign buyers is of no use to the workers. Rather, they work for the owner.
The skills acquired by the workers who have been working in the state-owned jute mills for 15-20 years are being sold today to the private sector at a very cheap price. Many workers, who now get one-third of the government's wage while working almost double, strongly believe that there is some type of machinations at work behind this whole process.
At a time when the demand for jute products in the world is increasing, and new private jute mills are being established, government workers are being handed over to the private mills by closing down the government owned mills. The plan is to exploit these helpless labourers because they don't know any work other than jute mill work.
On July 2, 2020, amid Covid lockdown, the government announced the closure of 25 jute mills and laid off 70,000 workers. Without paying the dues, the workers were evicted from the colony in clear violation of the Bangladesh labour law.
About 11,000 workers of five jute mills including Khalishpur-Daulatpur jute mill of Khalishpur haven't yet received their arrears. Even if the payments of transfer workers are released now, they will not get it before Eid. Having to leave their earnings with the government, the workers are now starving.
Idris Ali, an elderly worker sitting at the mill gate, said in grief one day, "No one cares about us, the government has snatched our jobs, and now the Almighty has also turned his face away from us."
Ruhul Amin is the coordinator of Sramik-Krishak Chhatra-Janata Oikya Parishad. This article has been translated from Bangla by Tanveer Ahmed Chowdhury.