They have to stay in slums that are shabby, dirty and congested, simply because the poor families cannot afford to pay for better accommodation. Laboni Begum, Habiba Begum, Halima Begum and Tahmina Begum — some of the workers of shrimp processing plants in Rupsha area near Khulna city — also say they cannot take quality food or enjoy necessary healthcare facilities although they are earning by serving the export-earning sector.
‘It is the shrimp processing plants which have employed hundreds of poor women like me. But unfortunately we cannot meet the costs of a better living with the current wages,’ said a 25-year-old Laboni Begum, who works at Organics Sea Food Limited.
She earns Tk 1,700 a month and her husband Rafiqul Islam who, too, works in a plant and earns another Tk 2,500 a month. ‘How can we run a family in Khulna city with this amount?’ said Laboni. For her financial insolvency, she has sent back her six-year-old daughter, Jharna, to the village home to stay with her father-in-law and mother-in-law. To run a family with children in Khulna requires Tk 8,000 a month— more than double the couple’s earnings put together.
With the current earning status, the working families can hardly buy fish and meat and in most cases, they eat rice and pulses twice a day and sometimes vegetables, which too are getting expensive in comparison to their earnings.
This is the common feature of many of 25,000 workers, including 20,000 women, at the shrimp processing units. Twenty-nine plants out of 56 located in Khulna city and its adjacent areas are now in operation. Different steps of shrimp processing include receiving shrimps, dressing, scaling and packaging for making them ready for exports.
Male workers at the plants draw salary at a range between Tk 1,800 and Tk 3,500 a month and female workers get between Tk 1,200 and Tk 2,500 a month, said a number of workers while talking to New Age. The women workers alleged discrimination against them in terms of pays since the work loads and duty hours are same for both male and female workers.
However, the government has neither fixed the minimum wage for the workers nor taken steps to ensure compliance with different standards relating to health, environment and gender parity although the poverty reduction strategy paper has outlined strategies on improving sectoral governance, sanitation and safe water, employment and nutrition, and maternal health and quality education.
‘We have to spend major portion of our income for buying food, taking shelter and paying bills of electricity, water and fuel. Consequently, most of the labourers are forced to stop education of their children even at primary level,’ said Habiba Begum, 45, a worker of Jalalabad Sea Foods in Rupsha area.
Wife of Ruhul Amin, a sardar (workers’ leader) at Rupsha ferry jetty, Habiba did it. Her 12-year-old son Maruf stopped going to school, ‘I was forced to engage him (Maruf) at the shrimp processing plant and add to the family’s earning,’ she said.
Habiba, however, has one satisfaction from having the job. ‘The husbands of female workers discuss with their wives to take any family decision — something which was not there before having job,’ she pointed out. She also felt that her employment had given them a thrust for achieving development in their life.
But the workers in general have to serve without any appointment cards and they have to enlist their names on a daily attendance book. Most of the plants run two shifts, each spanning 12 hours and the workers sometimes have to work more without a guarantee of payment for overtime duties.
Also, if the workers cannot be present at workplace due to illness or family problems for a few days, they are dismissed. The women workers are not given adequate maternity leaves and if any pregnant woman remains absent beyond the leave, she is fired or at best has to swallow abusive words from her bosses.
‘Leave is a thing that we generally do not get from the management. Mothers have to pass working hours without seeing their infants as no child is allowed to enter the compound of the plants,’ said Halima Begum, 40, a widow who works in a shrimp processing plant in Rupsha.
None of the plants has childcare centre. For the workers, there are nominal health cards but they are not provided with necessary healthcare services. Physicians just visit the plants once a week and sign the cards.
Tahmina Begum, 35, a worker of Modern Sea Food, who livers in a slum of Bagmara area of Purba Rupsha, insisted that it is the high time to set a minimum wage structure at the shrimp processing plants in consistent with the commodity price-hike. ‘If the owners can provide us with housing facilities, it will be better for us to serve with good health and mind,’ he said
Asaduzzaman, a human rights activist, observed that a whole economic chain of different kinds of shops, jobs of day labourers, rickshaw-van pullers, vegetable hawkers and vendors had developed centering the shrimp process plants and the slums of workers in their hundreds.
‘But the workers are yet to be made economically solvent to make their family lives better,’ he said adding that the plant management did not allow formation of trade union to bargain with the cause of the workers.
Member secretary of Khulna Nagarik Samaaj, Firoz Ahmed underlined the need for a minimum wage structure and also change in attitude towards the workers — both male and female — so that they could match with different national and international development goals.
When asked, Quazi Belayet Hossain, president of Bangladesh Frozen Food Exporters’ Association, claimed improvement in the situation and ‘trickle-down effect’ of the industry on the nutritional, educational status and gender parity.
He, however, conceded that if the government approves any minimum wage structure, the owners would follow it although some works are on for fixation of minimum wages for the plant labourers.