Why must Khalishpur die? |
Last week, I accompanied members of the "Jatiyo Tran Committee" (a voluntary group headed by Justice Gholam Rabbani, formed to provide assistance to distressed citizens) who had collected funds to help the jute workers of Khalishpur tide over the very difficult times they faced, with the sudden termination of their employment in four jute mills: Eastern, Platinum, People's and Crescent. Khalishpur, an industrial area, looked dead, as mills had ground to a halt, shops were closed, and total uncertainty faced its large population of workers.
The local volunteers of the Committee, mostly jute workers themselves, had done a brilliant job of organising the food distribution to about 7,000 families, and as we arrived at each site, we found disciplined lines of workers, their children or wives, waiting for their share of khitchuri.
Earlier, the workers had been given slips by the organisers to identify family members of those who's jobs had been terminated since April, without receiving their back wages.
The distribution took place outside three of the mills. The manager in one of the mills had told the Committee that there was no crisis, and workers were doing well! Yet it was from this mill that workers brought their vessels for food. Before the distribution started, personnel claiming to represent intelligence agencies did the rounds of the Committee in Dhaka and Khulna to find out the purpose of the distribution.
Justice Rabbani, too, was telephoned by the BJMC chief. The Committee had collected sufficient funds to keep the distribution going for about 5 days, but at the end of the first day, the local organisers were told to remove their cooking vessels and stop distribution. Four workers were roughly handled, allegedly by the police, and told to stop their voluntary work.
When the police commissioner was asked, he claimed he had given no such orders. So who had, and why was it necessary to stop this support? When milad mahfils are held, no one is stopped from distributing food to the needy, it is seen as an act of kindness. With floods staring us in the face, will not the government want citizens' involvement in managing the disaster, as they have done in previous years? So, what's so different about Khalishpur?
The loss of workers' jobs means starvation for their families, deprivation of education for their children, sickness, and social instability. In other words, what we are hoping to create in the name of industrial efficiency is likely to be a social disaster. In April, the termination of jobs of 1500 workers of People's Jute Mills led to protests and demands of payment of back wages and other benefits. This brought on police violence and filing of criminal charges against 5000 workers.
While legal aid organisations obtained release of the arrested workers on bail and appealed for withdrawal of cases against them, other citizens' groups helped with medical care and other forms of support. Why should these actions be called into question? Do we want Bangladesh to be known as a country where citizens are callous to each other's needs?
On July 18, the jute advisor announced a "rescue" plan, which rests on closure of four mills and over 50 raw jute sales centres, and termination of 14,000 jobs. She hoped to clear all workers' dues in July and August. What are workers expected to live on between April and July? As it is, they have taken loans at high interest from local money lenders, as it is, they are being told to vacate their houses in the mill colonies, as it is, they are told that the cost of rent and utilities will be deducted from their wages.
Will it help Bangladesh's image if these workers and their families end up on the bread line, their children unable to go to school because there is no money for school fees? Are they not likely to become easy victims of trafficking?
An interim government is not expected to solve all the accumulated problems of Bangladesh. Dealing with corruption and walking the road map to elections are, themselves, mighty forbidding tasks.
To smoothen the way for industrial reform, the council of advisors would do well to prioritise certain criteria for industrial regeneration and management reforms. And these criteria cannot exclude workers skilled in manufacturing products that are in increasing demand worldwide because of environmental factors, and low cost of production.
In jute, Bangladesh has a competitive advantage because of its raw material supply as well as its skilled labour. Let's not lose these through hastily arrived at solutions. Let's take another look, and involve knowledgeable persons outside the government who might be able to find a better way than that suggested by bureaucrats. A long-term industrial solution may project a better image for Bangladesh than a plan for dis-employment.
Hamida Hussain is Convener of the Sromik Nirapotta Forum.