The cycle never stops as employees get minimal wages to live through the serving period
Dilu Miah, a labourer at the Shahi Rice Mill in Ashuganj, Brahmanbaria faces a never-ending cycle of debt and hard work to repay that debt, with almost no chance of meeting his family.
He is one of thousands of bonded labourers working in different rice mills in Ashuganj, Brahmanbaria.
Seven months earlier Dilu worked for Rizia Haque Rice Mill where he was given an interest-free Tk50,000 loan to pay his personal debts. Like other male workers, Dilu gets a meagre Tk50 per day to cater for the daily necessities of his family during the year. It is worth noting that the amount for women workers is even lower, at Tk10.
However, since the wage is too low to meet all their needs, Dilu is likely to ask for more loans from his "owner", and eventually increase his working days. Most often workers like him take a loan from another factory to pay off the loan taken from their current workplace, and thus the cycle goes on.
And more importantly, one of the conditions of getting the loan is limited movement. This is to prevent them from enjoying any decent free time. The rice mill owners provide their modern slaves with food and accommodation so that they have no excuse to leave the factory premises.
Many factory owners argue that they prohibit the labourers from leaving the workplace until the debt is fully repaid, as a precaution against any attempt to forget about the loan completely and go scot-free.
However, the owners are more likely to exploit the opportunity since bonded labour requires minimal wages and ensures the continuous presence of a worker.
It is important to add that the facilities the labourers get during their time in the factory are deplorable. A single labourer gets a small unclean 3 feet by 6 feet room with poor ventilation and little sunlight.
For a meal, they get rice only, and they have to pay for anything else to eat with their own wages. There is a single toilet with poor sanitation for a large number of workers.
Bhiosi Ghat by the River Meghna in Ashuganj, Brahmanbaria is regarded as the largest wholesale market for paddy in eastern Bangladesh. More than 350 rice mills have mushroomed in the district to capitalise on the huge supply, while Ashuganj upazila alone has over 300 of them.
The paddy from the haor-areas of Brahmanbaria, Sunamganj, Netrokona, Kishoreganj, Mymensingh, Sylhet and Habiganj is sold in Bhiosi Ghat.
The women workers usually have to boil the paddy and dry it in the sun, while their male counterparts are entrusted with threshing the dried paddy before it is sent by the truckload to different rice wholesale markets across the country.
Alam Miah works in the Sun-Moon Rice Mill. He has taken about five lakh as loan during the 12 years he has had to serve as a bonded labourer. He has not met his family in all this time.
"I have no land or house to sell and settle my loans once and for all with my owner. So, I have to keep taking loans time and again to make ends meet, and consequently keep extending my time here," a grief-stricken Sardar Alam said.
But he is not the only one facing such an ordeal. Everyone working as a bonded labourer shares the same fate, Sardar Alam added.
Rice mill owners keep in touch with certain 'sardars' or labourer contractors to procure labourers on affordable terms. These mediators in turn chip off about 20 percent of the loan given to the labourers as personal income.
Many a time the mediators run away with the entire sum. But in every case, the labourers are held responsible for the entire loan.
A rice mill owner generally gives around Tk16-17 lakh in loans every year to 30-40 labourers. The labourers generally take loans worth Tk30-50 thousand for a year, while the sum never goes above one lakh Taka.
Md Kamal, owner of Sun Moon Rice Mill, said, "The labourers who work under debt bondage have no house or land to use as collateral for taking loans. Yet we give them loans purely based on trust."
If they are acquainted with our assigned recruiters or sardars, they are even allowed to visit their homes, on the condition that a person has to leave his or her spouse on the factory premises as an assurance, he added.
Babul Ahmed, president of Brahmanbaria Rice Mill Owners' Association told The Business Standard that the labourers have been repeatedly asked not to accept debt bondage. Yet they continue to work as bonded labourers.
In recent times the plight of bonded labourers has improved because their wages have been increased. Some are even allowed to work outside the mills to make enough money for themselves, Babul concluded.