As 50 to 60 percent construction projects remain stalled, day labourers are struggling to find work and those who do are working at grave risk to their health
The sun is bright in the sky and it is past midday. Buses, rickshaws and passerbys are commuting on the busiest street of Motijheel and construction work is going on just beside the street. A bunch of women are busy at work.
Sabina, a thin and frail woman, is one of the workers. She carries a straw basket full of broken bricks and throws them down on the construction site. But she is slow and the "sardar" (leader) yells at her to work faster.
She hurries, but keeps lagging behind. It's not easy to lift such heavy weights while being four months pregnant. She tires easily. But the two months of Covid-19 general holidays has not left her any choice.
"I have seen people getting emergency relief but I have not received any. Few people came several times, noted down our name and address, and that was it. I have not even seen a grain of rice. I know I should not work now but this is the only way I can survive. Resting at home will not bring food to my table," said Sabina.
So the helpless Sabina started working as a day labourer. During the shutdown, her rickshaw-puller husband could not earn much. They started to run short on savings. To make ends meet, Sabina's husband started working with her.
While Sabina and her husband are trying to still survive in the city, many low-income workers have moved out and returned to their village. Some have taken up farming, while others have started work as shopkeepers or seasonal workers in their hometowns. Some went away during the two-month shutdown but returned to the city to resume their previous jobs. as that is the only work they know.
Construction project leader Mahfuz has been doing this work for the last thirty years, across the country. The Covid-19 shutdown period was the only time in his career he has been out of work. "As people left Dhaka, essential tools for construction work were hard to come by, hampering our work. Many workers went back to their villages as a result," Mahfuj said.
However, Sattar Ali, another construction project leader, had a different experience. Work came by easy during shutdown but work was not consistent and workers were hard to find. So, projects were on hold. Although work has resumed, it is still not consistent.
According to Rehab, around 50 to 60 percent projects have stalled. In the Dhaka district, there were around 15 lakh construction workers. Just about 10 percent of them have returned to work, say worker leaders.
"Moreover, the daily wage has also decreased due to the pandemic," informed Abdur Razzak, general secretary of Imarat Nirman Sromik Union Bangladesh. According to workers, those who earned Tk800 a day are now getting around Tk600 to 650; while those who made Tk600 are being paid Tk500.
For the workers that are still working, the use of masks or hand gloves is non-existent, and the real estate companies do not appear to provide any.
"It is very tough to wear masks and work as we sweat and suffer from shortness of breath within a few minutes. It is difficult to hold spades and baskets with gloved hands. So, we cannot use those either," said Shefali, another construction worker.
Construction workers have always worked in conditions prone to health risks and the situation is acute now. The sites have not even been equipped with proper hand washing facilities. Rather, workers wash their hands with only water before eating.
Pure drinking water is also inaccessible to workers at the sites. Before the pandemic hit, the workers used to bring water to work from their homes and managed more water from nearby houses or shops. But people refuse to help them now.
The scarcity of drinking water and public toilets has always been an issue. They went to public washrooms, oftentimes which are far from the sites. However, construction workers are protected by the Bangladesh Labour Act 2006. The act says that a worksite should have a portable water source, sufficient number of washrooms and toilets for workers.
But the responsible parties were not found on site and the workers' needs were not met. City corporations do not deal with the workers directly. They give contracts to different companies and companies give it to contractors, who then hire project leaders to deal with the workers directly. The worker's problems go unaddressed.
Kamal, a company contractor on site who refused to name his employer, said, "We did not know that workers are facing such severe issues. We only communicate with the leaders. If we knew that there is a scarcity of drinking water and accessibility of toilets, we would have solved it."