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.

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1 comment:

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