Saturday 19 March 2022

"There Is No Work Without Hard Work" - Stories From Bangladesh

"In Bangladesh, there is no work without hard work" said Omison, a day labourer at Mirpur, Dhaka. Just a few kilometres from the centre of the city, Mirpur is one of several places in Dhaka where goods are delivered for unloading and onward sale. All day, hundreds of labourers collect 30kg baskets of coal, place them on their heads and then walk up a steep narrow plank before emptying the goods onto a dark, dusty mountain. They repeat this process over and over again. For each load, a foreman hands them a plastic token. The tokens are collected at the end of the day and the workers are paid 3 thaka for each one. That's less than 3 pence. A  cup of street tea in Dhaka costs between 5 and 10 thaka. 

Omison is not sure of her age, but thinks she is about 60. She wore a purple and orange floral print sari, part of which she pulled up to cover her head in the way many Bangladeshi women do when talking to strangers. I asked her how she came to be working as a labourer. She said  "I've been doing this work for many years. I can't remember exactly when I started. It's very hard but I don't want to beg". I asked about her family. She said, "I am originally from Jamalpur. My father was a farm worker and my mother begged in the street. I live alone. I don't have a husband and my son is dead." I pressed a little, still curious about why she is doing this particular type of work. "I didn't go to school" she said. "I am not educated. I tried to get work in a garment factory or in the home of a wealthy lady but they wouldn't take me. What else can I do?"

As I stood and watched, the endless line of workers moved up and down the ramp, their motion regular and unchanging like the workings of a clock and their moving shadows reflected on the side of the barge. They have a short break in the morning and another one for lunch when, for a few thaka, they can buy rice and watery curry from one of the stalls that have sprung up to serve them. The breaks are taken in shifts. The line never stops.

"I have to take painkillers every day after work so that I can sleep"

Most of the workers are men, but there are also several women. Most of them younger than Omison, but at  a different location, I met a woman doing similar work who said she was 66. Male or female, they have similar stories. Most of their parents were day labourers either in rural areas or in the city. The majority had either never been to school or had received only a few years of education. Despite this, they were hopeful for their children and the younger workers I spoke to claimed to be sending their sons and daughters to school. This does not mean that they will complete their education and many Bangladeshi children leave the classroom before they reach their teens,  to start work and to help the family survive.

All of the workers I met told me they suffer from headaches, back pain and problems with their knees and shoulders. Krishna, aged 30 said "I have to take painkillers every day after work so that I can sleep". I asked if they had respiratory problems because of their exposure to the coal dust. All of them said the dust did not affect them. I hope that this is true but as Dhaka has recently been identified as having the  poorest air quality of any city in the world, it may be that they haven't noticed due to their constantly breathing in dust and other pollutants.

Most day labourers cannot afford to be ill. They are only paid for the work they do and there is no sick-pay. I asked how they had managed during Covid. Tinku, aged 48 said "It was a struggle. I have two children to feed. I had to buy food and pay the rent,  so I took a loan from an NGO". He is now making repayments at an interest rate of 15%. Omison had been able to stay at home. "Friends helped me" she said and then added "I didn't have to beg". She mentioned begging three times during our conversation. Financial security is precarious here and many live with the fear of having to ask for money in the streets. 

Dreaming of some other place

Bangladesh is full of surprises. In the midst of this hard labour, two Hijra, members of the country's third gender community, sat on the ground, one arranging the other's hair. They saw me, and start pulling faces and joking. They were quickly joined by two other Hijra who begin to dance, and to pretend to fight, as they staged a "scene" for the camera. They are also employed as labourers which is most unusual. I have met and interviewed several members of this community in India, but have never encountered or heard of Hijra working as labourers.

Beside the food stalls, there was, of all things, an ice-cream kiosk. A small boy, in a long-sleeved shirt and tatty shorts, stood a few feet away from it, slowly eating an ice-cream on stick. His legs and feet were covered in grey dust. I was certain that one, or both of his parents, were unloading coal. He briefly looked at the camera, but not in an excited or curious way like many children do. Rather, he had a detached air, as if he wasn't really there and was dreaming of some other place. He may well have been dreaming of better things, but the cruel truth is that when he reaches his teenage years, he is likely to be doing the same work as his parents.

You might also like The Rickshaw Woman of Kamalapur 

You can see more pictures from my Bangladesh trip here.

Follow me on instagram @adrianyekkes

Sunday 13 March 2022

The Rickshaw Woman of Kamalapur - Stories From Bangladesh

I met Noor Jehan outside Kamalapur, Dhaka's main railway station. Not the Noor Jehan who was Pakistan's best-known actress and singer, but her namesake, who is one of the city's two known women rickshaw drivers. I asked her how she came to be doing this work. She said "I began six years ago when my drug-addicted husband finally left me. I need to support my two daughters and I want them to complete their education." Her girls are now aged 13 and nine and their photographs are displayed on the back of her rickshaw. 

"My name is Noor Jehan"

I went to Kamalpur, Dhaka's main station to admire the modernist architecture, and to look for pictures and stories. Kamalapur is a mini-version of Dhaka. Huge crowds flow in and out of the station. Hawkers, beggars and street kids take up residence under the external canopies, hoping to make enough money to feed themselves, and dozens of rickshaw and tuk-tuk drivers wait, anticipating customers. At night (and sometimes during the day) homeless people sleep here. The mood is often raucous as the drivers tease each other or minor disputes break out between the other occupants. The drivers drink tea  purchased from a street vendor and drive a hard bargain with commuters and shoppers before setting off on their next journey.

In the midst of this activity I noticed a woman standing beside a rickshaw, with a small crowd around her. She wore a gamcha (worker's towel) as a hijab and held the handle-bars of an electronic rickshaw. I have never seen a woman rickshaw driver in my travels around India and did not expect to meet one in Bangladesh. Together with Liton, my guide and interpreter, I drew closer and we began to talk to her. She was small and quietly spoken and understandably seemed a little suspicious at first. We introduced ourselves and she said "My name is Noor Jehan".

I wanted to know how she became a driver, and how people reacted to her. This was only my second day in Bangladesh but I had already learned that if I stop to speak to someone, a small  crowd will gather, follow the conversation and sometimes try to add to, or dispute, the answers I'm given. The canopy at Kamalapur was no exception and very quickly a large group gathered, including other drivers, passers-by and a couple of Hijra, all of them taking close interest in our conversation. It was clear that this wasn't the best place to talk, so we hired her, and she took us for a drive around central Dakha.

 "I am determined I will never beg and nor will my daughters".

Driving in Dhaka at four in the afternoon is not for the faint hearted. Actually, driving in Dhaka at any time is not for the faint-hearted. There are too many vehicles, not enough space and the rules of the road are interpreted very broadly. The rickshaw is a very fragile vehicle and when surrounded by cars, buses and overloaded trucks the driver and passengers are vulnerable. Despite this I love traveling this way, being close to the activity, and getting a different view of the street. But of course, I don't have to do this to earn a living. Noor copes with this every day.

She explained how the rickshaw system works. She rents the vehicle from the garage, for 300 thaka, per day, which  is about £3. By 4pm on the day I met her she had made 400 and so had only just cleared a profit. She would go on working until the evening while a neighbour looked after her daughters. 

I asked her how she managed to secure the job. "I needed work but didn't know what I could do. I thought maybe I could drive a rickshaw and so I went to a garage and asked to rent one. The owner laughed and told me to go away. He said the work is too hard for a woman and that I wouldn't be able to do it. But I didn't give up and eventually he agreed to rent an e-rickshaw to me". I wondered about the response of the other rickshaw drivers and how they treated her. "Some are pleasant and encourage me" she said, "others are not pleasant  and say bad things. It's the same with the customers". Shortly after starting our drive I saw an example of this less pleasant behaviour. While we were waiting at a traffic light, a man leaned out of a bus window, shouted something and leered at us. Liton shouted something back and the man quickly sat down. I asked him what had been said. "He was rude and asked us why we had chosen a woman driver. I told him to mind his own business" he said. From the expression on the man's face, I suspect it may have been something a little stronger than that. 

I asked if she was there were any other woman rickshaw drivers in the city. "I only know about one other" she replied. "I've seen a woman driving a rickshaw in the university area but I've never spoken with her". After twenty minutes we made our way back to the station. As we said goodbye we wished her and her daughters luck before insisting she accept the tip that she twice refused. "Remember me in your prayers" she said, "I am happy to work hard for my girls. I am determined I will never beg and nor will my daughters".

Logistics for my trip were managed by Native Eye and Bangladesh Eco Tours.

You can see more pictures from my Bangladesh trip here.

Follow me on instagram @adrianyekkes