Since the mill was shut down six years ago, the well-being of its employees has been getting worse
Jahirul Islam, a former employee of Khulna Hardboard Mill, has been struggling to make ends meet since the mill was shut down six years ago.
"Sometimes I pull rickshaws, sometimes I work as an assistant brick mason. But I often fail to get work," he said.
Since 2002, the cash-strapped mill had been shut down a number of times. It had 204 personnel against the required manpower of 242 when it closed for the last time on November 25, 2013.
However, the former employees still enjoy accommodation facilities with electricity, water supply and sewerage lines operational.
"I live in a worn-out building of the mill's residential area with my wife and two sons. Being a former employee, I do not have to pay any rent," Jahirul said.
But the employees still dream of a fully-operational mill as it had shut down many times before and still managed to resume operations.
Alimuzzaman, 70, another former employee of the mill, said it was once full of life. Back then, he would wake up at dawn to the siren of the mill. After offering his morning prayers, he would go to work.
"I miss those morning wake-up calls very much. In my dreams I can still hear the siren calling us to start work for the day," he said.
Another former employee Khorshed Mia shared the nostalgia about the siren and the passion to respond to it.
"We still long to see the mill running in full swing," Khorshed said.
The Khulna Hardboard Mill was established on 9.96 acres of land in 1965 in Khalishpur, Khulna city on the banks of the Bhairab River. The Canadian Commercial Corporation constructed it.
It began commercial operation in 1966, producing 215-lakh square feet of hardboard in the first year. Wood of the sundari tree from the Sundarbans was used as the prime raw material. The mill even won a gold medal for making significant amount of profits.
In 1991, the Forest Department stopped the supplying of timber from the Sundarbans, dealing the first blow to the mill. As a result, the Bangladesh Chemical Industries Corporation was forced to use different species of more expensive wood.
The increased price of local firewood, lack of government subsidies and the periodic rise in furnace oil price hampered productions and consequently led to the first closure on December 15, 2002. Consequently, the entire workforce were left unemployed.
It was restarted on August 14, 2005 but faced frequent closures due to equipment malfunctions and financial crisis.
The mill faced a short pause on July 16, 2010 as operations were resumed soon. But the restart lasted less than a year, as it was shut down again on April 21, 2011, due to a shortage of funds.
In November 2012, the government undertook an eight-month-long renovation project to reopen the factory with support from Bangladesh Chemical Industries Corporation. The mill workers found hope yet again when the mill was finally opened on August 15, 2013.
But this time their hopes lasted much shorter as the factory faced financial crisis again. It was shut only about a hundred days into its new journey. Many initiatives followed to resume the mill's operations, but to no avail.
On September 5, 2014 the then Minister of Industries Amir Hossain Amu visited the factory and said the mill would go into production again after procuring foreign investment. But over five years later, his words are yet to be materialised.
Molla Farid Uddin Ahmed, convener of Khulna Hardboard Mill Bachao Sangram Parishad told The Business Standard that about 250 people used to work in the mill during its heyday. But now most of them are grappling with starvation or near-starvation.
He also pointed out that the property and equipment in the mill worth crores of taka are going out of order as they lie idle.
The mill also retains a security team comprising of 11 Ansar members and five private guards.
Seeking anonymity, an Ansar member serving at the mill informed that even the room for security guards is about to collapse due to a lack of maintenance and repair.
Almost all the equipment and machinery of the mill are out of order, including the board making machine, boiler, chipper machine, store room and the finishing factory, he said adding that the mill cannot go into production in this condition.
Shamalendu Dutta, managing director of the mill, declined to comment on the issue, hinting that the uncertainty may linger.