Workers are demanding a month’s pay from transportation company owners, but most owners are waiting for a government response to bail out the workers
A man, along with an assistant, was selling vegetables on a rickshaw van moving from one road to another. From his dealings, he was presumed to be new in the business.
When asked, he said his name was Arzu Mia.
"I used to work as a driver for a city bus service in the capital. As I – like most others in the sector – worked as a daily wage labourer, I had no income from the very first day of the transportation shutdown. After one week of joblessness, when I was facing tremendous hardships in providing for my family's daily needs, I decided to enter this business,'' he said.
He took Tanveer, who had worked as a helper on the bus he drove, with him, to run the new business.
"We are in such a position that we cannot seek charity from others. My two daughters study in a reputed high school here. My mother also lives with us. I have embarked on this new profession to help my family survive these hard times.
"I don't know how long this crisis will last,'' said Arzu.
Arzu is one among several million transportation workers who have been left jobless due to the nearly month-long nationwide shutdown to stem the spread of Covid-19.
However, unlike him, a vast majority of the workers have not been able to adopt a new means to earn their living. Having been left without any financial assistance from any quarter, they are suffering every day.
While on visits to the Gabtoli and Mohakhali bus terminals in the city on Saturday morning, The Business Standard found some transportation workers who had been staying there to watch over their buses after the shutdown started.
Some of them said they had been receiving a paltry Tk100 as daily allowance for doing the job.
"We are here risking our lives and are trying to survive the crisis with the insufficient amount of allowance we are getting.
"Our families live in villages. They are living an inhuman life because we do not have enough income to support them," some of the workers said in chorus.
The situation is even worse at different bus terminals in Khulna.
According to transportation workers' leaders, at least 600 workers are staying at different terminals there, but they are yet to receive any assistance either from transportation company owners or from the government.
They said the workers' unions tried to do a little with their limited capacity but that was far from being sufficient to meet the needs of the affected workers.
Transportation workers and their leaders said only a few employees had received some government relief at district levels, and only a few transportation company owners who own large companies had offered a little help to their workers.
"Most of the owners still do not care about their labourers. They are waiting for a government response," they added.
Mortoja Hossain, general secretary to Jashore Zila Paribahan Sangstha Sramik Union claimed no worker had received any help from the district administration.
"We three labour unions in Jashore district have submitted lists of our affected members to the upazila nirbahi officers concerned but only a handful have received some rice and other materials at union levels,'' he said.
"Some big transport companies like Eagle and Green Line have provided some aid to their workers," he added.
Zakir Hossain Biplob of Khulna Motor Sramik Union told the Business Standard that only 200 of 6,500 members of his union had thus far received government assistance from the district administration.
The Department of Labour had collected a list of 1,200 workers from them but helped only 260 of them, he added.
President of Khulna Divisional Truck Sramik Union said most of the 30,000 members of their organisation had yet to receive any government aid. No owners had come forward to support the suffering workers, he claimed.
President of Bogura Inter-District Truck Sramik Union Abdul Mannan Mondol said more than 35 thousand bus and truck workers in the district had not received any government aid, even though they had provided the lists of workers to the administration.
"Delays in providing assistance will only worsen the condition of the workers," he argued.
According to Mohammad Musa, Chattogram unit president of the Bangladesh Road Transport Workers Federation, around one lakh transportation workers of the district, who have been left jobless due to the shutdown, are still out of the coverage of the government relief programmes.
Although the transportation of necessary goods and food items are out of the purview of the shutdown, only 10 to 15 percent of trucks and covered vans are plying on roads, say workers' leaders, adding that these workers also face different types of problems thus they are unwilling to drive.
The leaders mentioned that if a truck passes through a Covid-19-hit area, the driver and other workers are forced to stay under quarantine after they return. Plus, some face unwanted situations like snatching and other issues.
In the long run, these workers are entering a cycle of suffering as they do not have other means to earn their livelihoods.
No help from workers union welfare fund
According to available data, there are 245 transportation workers' unions in the country.
However, sources at the Standing Committee on Ministry of Labour and Employment say the total number of organisations of transportation company owners and workers stands at 932.
In a normal situation, these organisations collect huge amounts of money in donations.
Seeking anonymity, some leaders of the Bangladesh Road Transport Workers Federation – the umbrella organisation of the 245 workers' unions – said each union used to provide Tk1,000 to the federation every month. Additionally, workers' unions at four terminals in Dhaka used to collect Tk10 from each vehicle every day on behalf of the federation.
Each union collected Tk70 every day, from each vehicle, from which Tk40 and Tk30 went to owners' and workers' welfare funds, respectively.
At present, there are eight lakh commercial vehicles from which at least Tk850 crore is collected a year in the name of workers' welfare.
Union leaders claim the money is used for managing the organisations, helping disabled and retired workers, helping the families of deceased workers, and so on.
Currently, they do not have enough funds to serve 50 lakh workers, they say, adding that they are serving the affected workers according to their capacity.
However, many workers have rejected the claims made by their leaders. They say, "We give our hard-earned money to the unions in the hope that those will be used for our welfare when we are in need. But now, when we are in crisis we do not see any leader by us."
Workers' leaders blame transportation company owners
Most union leaders from different districts said transportation company owners were not doing enough to support the affected workers.
Mentioning that some big companies have helped their workers to some extent, which is appreciated, they claimed that most of the owners are not taking care of their workers – pushing them towards starvation.
Mohammad Musa, Chattogram unit president of the Bangladesh Road Transport Workers Federation said, "Transportation company owners are waiting for a government response."
"The government has taken initiatives which may take time to reach out to the affected workers. However, owners must pay at least one month's pay to their workers," he continued.
Workers' leaders have also urged the government to pressurise the owners to disburse one month's pay for their workers.
Khandakar Enayetullah, secretary general of the Bangladesh Road Transport Owners' Association, however, claimed that transportation company owners had helped their workers according to their capabilities.
Turning down workers' demand for one month's wages to be paid, he said, "As this is a daily income-generating sector and workers are paid on a daily basis, there is no way to pay one month's salaries. Many transport owners are also suffering in the present situation."
"The government should undertake initiatives and declare a stimulus package for the sector. Otherwise, the entire sector will fall and all stakeholders – including workers and owners – will suffer in the long run,'' he concluded.