More than 45,000 lighterage vessel crew members are working on various routes across the country risking probable novel coronavirus infection as most of the ship owners have not provided them with masks, hand sanitisers, personal protective equipment or any other health safety gear.
The workers said they had bought hand sanitisers with their own money, but there was not enough of it.
More than 3,000 lighterage vessels – each vessel having a helmsman, an assistant helmsman and 15 labourers – ply regularly on various routes across the country. As many as 1,500 vessels leave Chittagong port's outer anchorage for different areas in the country.
The president of the Bangladesh Lighterage Workers Union, Sheikh Mohammad Isa Mia, said, "While all the people are staying at home due to the shutdown to curb coronavirus infections, lighterage workers are risking their lives. Owners have provided nothing for their safety. Workers are always sharing their fear with us. Many of them continue working and risking their lives fearing job loss."
At the Chittagong port outer anchorage, goods are unloaded from mother vessels to lighter vessels to be transported across the country. From January 2019 to February 2020, Chittagong Port handled 91,596,194 tonnes of bulk cargo.
Seeking anonymity, a worker on a lighterage vessel anchored in Chattogram's Patenga area said the owners are not concerned about their safety at all. They offload goods from mothers vessels where there are many foreigners, and thereby face the possibility of a coronavirus infection.
They have bought soap and hand sanitisers with their own money, he added.
The founder of Chattogram Nabik Kolyan Somiti, Rezaul Karim said, "Though personal safety issues for other professionals is discussed, no one is concerned about the safety of ship workers. The owners have provided nothing. The workers have repeatedly talked about abstaining from work for fear of coronavirus infection."
However, Md Nurul Haque, the co-convenor of the Water Transport Cell and general secretary of the Bangladesh Cargo Vessel Owners Association, denied the allegation that workers have not been provided safety equipment.
On March 26, the government announced a 10-day country-wide shutdown, and banned the use of passenger trains and water-vessels. Though truck, cargo, covered van, medicine, emergency service, energy, and perishable goods are exempted from the embargo, transport workers are not coming out of the home for fear of the coronavirus infection.
As a result, many importers have shifted to the waterways to transport their goods, said Sheikh Mohammad Isa Mia.