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     Volume 6 Issue 43 | November 9, 2007 |

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Cover Story

The Lives of Others

Nader Rahman

The lines between the haves and the have-nots have rarely been more visible in Bangladesh than they are today. Since the events of 1/11 the sheer scale of corruption that a privileged few enjoyed has been brought to light, the amount of money given and taken in assorted bribes as well as underhanded business practises has been simply staggering. The newspapers are filled with the glitzy details of their big spending lifestyles; probably on the very same page, more often than not, there is an article about price hikes and how they affect the middle class, all of this is packaged into a newspaper that costs Tk 10 a day. For millions of Bangladeshis who work as day labourers even Tk 10 is a chunk of their daily income, if they get work that is. On the days when they get no work at all, they would probably be happy with just Tk 10.

Day labourers lined up and looking for work

To fully understand the plight of the day labourers one must understand who they are, where they come from and what exactly they do. Day labourers are quite simply the unemployed and uneducated workers of this country, who work on an irregular basis, doing anything and almost everything that will pay them an honest wage, from cleaning up streets, to building houses, to carrying bricks. Their existence is defined by the irregularity of their work, they suffer at the mercy of the market and therefore can work on a daily basis, that too only when they are lucky enough to be picked up. In Bangladesh there are millions of day labourers trying to find work everyday, they are paid meagre wages but for them even something is better than nothing.

55 year old Shaju has a story similar to hundreds of thousands of other labourers in Dhaka. He says “I came to Dhaka 12 years ago to find work because there is nothing for me to do in my village. I had nothing there, and looked forward to nothing, so I decided to pack my bags and leave for Dhaka.” It was in Dhaka that he hoped to find steady work but as he continued, that was not the case, “I honestly did not expect to find work immediately, nor did I think I would become rich overnight, I had moderate expectations and honestly thought they would be fulfilled. Little did I know Dhaka was nothing like Bramanbaria, jobs were even more difficult to find here, but if one eventually found one the pay was much higher than in the villages,” he says. Shaju goes on to add “it was the lure of getting a highly paid job that kept me in the city and after struggling for a few years I realised that my dreams would not come true. I then decided not to go back to my village, it had nothing for me, but instead chose to stay on in Dhaka taking any work I could get. After borrowing enough money and not paying it back on time I had nothing left to do but become a day labourer.”

While Dhaka usually is the epicentre for most unemployed and uneducated people to congregate looking for jobs, the trend has been to move to any urban city. The demographic makeup of the nation is therefore constantly changing as more and more people cram themselves into the few urban areas this country has to offer. That itself would not be so bad if they had jobs to look forward to; what they end up doing is sporadic jobs as day labourers amidst a few million others.

Khurshed Mia is 50 years old and moved to the city 20 years ago. Since the very first day he has been a day labourer, he describes the hardships the average labourer has to face by saying “the worst thing about our jobs is the uncertainty. There is no day that we are guaranteed work. We usually wake up in time for our Fajr prayers then get ready and eat if we can before leaving to the nearest place of congregation where day labourers are picked up from”. That is not even the start of the difficulties as he continues “we usually arrive by 6:30 in the morning looking for work and inevitably there are a few hundred other people just like you waiting there for work as well. It is a horrible feeling as you just wait there, not wishing to even sit down in case you miss the time when a contractor comes. If and when someone finally comes there is mad rush to get to him, he usually needs at most 20 people and picks out the people who seem best for the job. The work is usually at a construction site, so he asks who has experience working at a construction site and then selects appropriately”. The whole day and in fact the livelihoods of those who show up is decided in a few minutes. Those who are picked work a full day of hard manual labour from 8am to 5pm and get paid a maximum of Tk 150 for their work. It would be a lie to say that amount of money is barely enough for them, the truth is, it is no where near enough from them to get by on.

On this topic day labourer Abul Hassan adds, “If it is a very good day, only then do we get 150 for our work. The flat rate is usually 120 and the reason behind that is that the contractors who hire us make some money out of it. They tell their employers that they will pay us Tk 150 a day, but in the end they only pay us Tk 120 and keep Tk 30 per labourer per day. And that amounts to quite a lot”, he poignantly goes on to say “life cheated us, so why shouldn't everybody else.”

The salary they receive is pitifully low, hardly anyone gets paid more than Tk 120 a day and for the sheer amount of physical torture they go through it is nowhere near the real value of their work. The cycle of misery continues from the pittance they receive as wages. They are forced to accept all the terms and conditions laid out by the employer, no matter how unfair, for they are completely dependent on their daily earnings. For the average day labourer, they will get work once maybe twice a week and then with their meagre earnings they must pay house rent, feed themselves and more often than not, feed a family of four or more dependants with a mere Tk 120 a day. It is a situation where the 'minimum wage' they get paid is still far too little to cover their expenses; they are then essentially working to remain poor.

Mustafa has been in Dhaka for 5 years working as a day labourer, he explains the basics of survival surrounded by fellow day labourers, “let me tell you my situation which is pretty similar to everyone else's here. If it's a good month I will manage to get work eight to ten days a month. The work is not special, it is usually at one of the new construction sites, it is tough but it pays, that's what is most important,” he goes on, “eight to ten days gives me a maximum of Tk 1200 a month. How will that ever do if my rent in the bosti that I live in is Tk 900 a month?”

Mustafa is clearly bitter by the impossible situation he is in: “Tk 1200 a month! I am left with only 300 to feed myself, my wife and two kids, how will that ever do?” Khurshed Mia chimes in, “with prices the way they are in the market, how are we supposed to live? Has this government forgotten us completely?” Many others nod their head in agreement. He goes on to forcefully state his point “the price of rice is Tk 35 a kg, potatoes are Tk 24-5 a kg and I won't even mention oil. How are we ever even supposed to survive with these prices? The average person here (pointing to other day labourers) needs at least Tk 4000 a month to feed themselves and their families and that is without paying house rent. Even if we work every single day of the month, which would be close to suicide we would only earn Tk 3500 a month. But I would even be happy with that, the truth is no one ever works more than 10 days a month and then we just have to make do.”

Their work involves lifting and transporting heavy objects for nine straight hours a day and for all their hard work they are only paid a measly Tk 120

“Rice should be Tk 10 a kg", says Mustafa, "soybean should be TK 30 and potatoes should be Tk 8 a kg, if that happened then maybe we could manage to keep things together.” Their story is as desperate as it gets, what they mean by keep things together is a social condition no one reading this article will even be able to comprehend. They are willing to put their bodies on the line, working every single day of the year in what could only be called rigorous imprisonment to simply feed their families more than once a day. Their 'shelter' is basically a hut in a shanty, sometimes with no door and take away the most part of their pitiful wages. But they are willing to deal with it all, if they get a fair salary, at Tk 120 a day it is just short of slave labour. There are millions of our fellow countrymen living like this, they do the work no one else wants to do, they break their bodies day after day and their reward is a mere Tk 120 a day. The sheer scale of their hardships is unimaginable, if one ever meets a day labourer one will see it etched in their faces.

There are a few hundred, maybe more, spots around Dhaka city that serve as the early morning meeting grounds for the day labourers of our capital city and even where they stand looking for work has become a problem. They often complain that whereever they stand they are harassed by the police, Shazad Mia relates how he was beaten by a police officer a few days ago, everyone nods their head, they saw it and more often than not they have felt it as well. He says he was hurt so badly that he couldn't even show up in the morning for a week, thereby depriving him the chance of work. Their lives never seem to get any easier.

Female labourers are put through the same amount of work as their male counterparts and their troubles they are paid less than them.

Ironically, while the government's massive corruption drive has been usually applauded, for the day labourers who go hungry because they cannot find work, the fact that construction work has virtually stopped is a fate worse than death. The cause and effect link was quite easy for them to point out. They claim that before this government there were many buildings being constructed around Dhaka and the more buildings being built the better the chances are of them getting work. Many of the very same people who were put away for, corruption, were in a convoluted way, the day labourers pay masters. The average day labourer does not care much for corruption and illegally earned wealth, all they look forward to is working to keep alive. The massive loss of jobs, especially for day labourers, coupled with the spiralling prices of essentials has pushed them to the brink of their very existence.

Twenty-two year old Bulbul says “we don't get to work because apartments are not being built, work is closed on all fronts, the rich people must now account for their money and we are the ones to suffer.” He adds his voice to the mix by saying “it is amazing how we must make a living, often for months on end, we buy food on credit and then sure enough the figure goes over Tk 10,000 and one day we just pack up our stuff and leave for a different area”, a story that has been repeated by many hundreds of thousands of day labourers around the country. They never earn enough to keep their accounts out of the red, so whenever they owe too much money (which is almost always for food) they leave the area with a debt hanging over their heads. They are seemingly always running from something, worst of all running from their lives.

Cheating day labourers also seems like big business as many come up with the same complaints. Mustafa says “for the big buildings the head contractors hire us for a month, then at the end of the month they keep us running to pick up the money. Then they will routinely accuse us of stealing, that gives them an excuse not to pay us and then they set the police against us, as if we don't have enough trouble with them, when we are merely standing around to get work.” Bulbul adds his story of being cheated when he says “two months ago I worked in Barisal, and my pay was fixed at Tk 10,000 for those 2 months of work. Just when I was going to collect my pay I found out the contractor that hired me had run away with all the labourers' money, somehow at the end of the day I managed to get Tk 6000, while many others did not even get paid.”

With construction being stalled, there is no work for the labourers, thus no daily wage

While many may think the injustices of day labour are only suffered by the men, that is entirely false. The men and women stand separately early morning in their search for work, for every four men there is probably one woman. When asking the men about the hardships in their lives they all gave their personal little lists, but before it all, they point to the women and say their hardships were even worse than the men. It is not something one expects to hear.

Day care on the job

Bipala a 40-year-old mother of four says “our (the women) lives as day labourers are far tougher than the men's. We work side-by-side, shoulder-to-shoulder with the men and in return we are only paid between Tk 80 and 100 a day while they will always get Tk 120 a day. How am I supposed to feed my family when I only earn Tk 80 a day?” The real question is why the female labourers are paid less than their male counterparts. The answer is simple, the contractors believe the women do not work as much as the men, their sexist views lead to women earning next to nothing while doing exactly the same amount of work as the men.

Bipala adds: “We would be willing to work any job, any time because we have families and husbands to feed”. 30 year old Joygun has more to say “most of us have tried our for garments factories but they just don't want us, we have even tried to be buas but we can't manage that either. All we are left with is being a day labourer where we work very hard in harsh conditions only to be paid less than the men.” With the women working there are also other problems to contend with. They all have a few children and most of them are still quite young, with the concept of day care a far cry from their situation, they leave their children unattended every morning as both parents go out looking for work. The children often under the age of 10 are left to fend for themselves as the parents return after dark. The best they can do is ask the neighbours to keep an eye on them, but even that is not very helpful as they point out. Logically one might think if both the parents are out working the children would at least be in school, but that is a laughable thought itself. Hardly any of them can afford to send their children to school; and another piece of harsh logic put forward by them is that the earlier the kids start working the better it will be for the family to survive. School or any sense of a happy childhood is a distant dream for the children of day labourers. Rashida Begum, a day labourer for 15 years says “don't write for us, it will do us no good. Just get me a job and it will save the lives of my family members, that is all I want.”

A rare break from the back-breaking work.

The labourers face other challenges as well; often contractors will come at 10 or 11 in the morning and will offer basically one hour less than a full day's work for a mere Tk 80-90 a day. When there are no other jobs available one can do nothing but accept the work and be grossly underpaid. Without work for months it is not uncommon for day labourers to think of stealing and mugging to keep their families alive. They all say the thought has passed through their head, but have never acted on it. When asked if they would resort to begging for a living they all unequivocally said never, they said they want to work to feed their families and that work is what keeps them honest. They may not have much but at least they still have a strong sense of pride and that is what keeps them alive.

Human beings are nosy by nature, we are seemingly obsessed with the lives of others. But even our nosiness is defined by class struggles, we seek to find out what is going on in the lives of those we perceive to be above us socially. We are never nosy about the lives of those who work for us, our domestic helpers, our drivers, our maids, our gardeners. Their lives are seemingly not interesting enough for us to be curious about them and more importantly that is the case because we see ourselves as above them. Day labourers are just those people who make up the numbers, they build the very apartments we live in and clean the very roads we dirty, they work the hardest manual labour one could imagine and all they get in return is Tk 120 a day if they are lucky. They live on the very edges of our lives, in our peripheral vision and yet we do nothing for them. Khushed Mia best sums it up: “the government is catching all these bigwigs who stole so much money, I wish they would catch me and send me to jail. At least I would have a roof over my head and would get fed thrice I day. That would be fantastic.”


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