Jute mill workers in Bangladesh block a road as they demonstrate in Dhaka demanding their withheld pay as well as a new salary scale on May 8, 2019. (ucanews.com photo)
Bangladeshi laborer Shahidul Islam has just endured one of the toughest years of his life as he struggled to feed his three children after his employer at a jute mill in Dhaka stopped paying his wages eight months ago.
The 40-year-old is an end-of-the-line worker, or loader, at the state-run Latif Bawani Jute Mill in the Demra area of the capital.
He inherited the job from his father after the family moved to the sprawling city decades ago from Barisal district in the country's south-central region.
Islam has worked at the mill for two decades now and was recently pulling in 9,200 Taka (US$110) a month.
However, his fortunes have suffered with those of the mill, which has been hit by a financial crisis since last summer. Hundreds of workers claim they have not received any pay since September 2018.
"I have to feed my family, pay the rent, and support my two kids who are still in school," Islam said.
"I've borrowed money to make ends meet, but now the time is up and my creditors are demanding I pay it back. I don't know what I will do," he told ucanews.com.
"We can't even manage two meals a day. If this keeps up, we're literally going to starve."
Tragically, the pain and suffering felt by Islam and his colleagues are not isolated cases.
An estimated 82,000 workers at 22 state-owned jute mills and three mills producing other fabrics and grains are in similar straits.
Bangladesh is the world's second-largest producer of jute after India, with the two countries accounting for over 90 percent of global production nearly a decade ago.
The long, soft vegetable fiber can be spun into strong threads, making it an ideal plant to make cloth from, second only to cloth in terms of applicability.
Before the industry fell on hard times it served as a pillar of the economy and was dubbed "the golden fiber" in honor of its contributions to Bangladesh's development.
Now the mills, all of which fall under the Bangladesh Jute Mills Corporation (BJMC), have not only stopped paying wages but also neglected to implement a revised government pay scale announced in 2015.
Most government offices and state-run corporations applied it but the mills did not, prompting a nationwide strike on May 6 with roads and transport blocked.
Thousands of mill workers have been agitating for a nine-point list of demands including that they be paid in arrears, that all forms of discrimination against them end, and that the new pay scale be respected and adopted.
Representatives of the BJMC argue that the sector has been experiencing huge losses for years and cannot pay their wages until they receive more financial support from the government.
"Talks are ongoing to try and reach a settlement with higher authorities so we can make sure the workers get paid, but nothing has been finalized yet," Sazzad Sheikh, a regional coordinating officer for the BJMC, told ucanews.com.
"Once the funds are released, we will be able to dispense their salaries," Sheikh said.
"Our mills have been incurring losses due to falling international demand for jute and related products. But the government is keen to keep the industry moving forward, so we hope to solve the current impasse soon," he added.
Shahidul Islam, 40, a jute mill worker from Dhaka's Demra area, describes the suffering his family has endured for much of the past year due to his employer withholding his pay. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)
Trade unionists say the workers have run out of patience and are tired of hearing the same old excuses.
"Various state sectors including the rail, power and banking industries have been counting losses, yet they are getting by with the support of the government," said Muhammad Ali, president of the Jute Workers League at Latif Bawani Jute Mill.
"We've had meetings with senior officials on several occasions but the situation remains deadlocked because no one is taking the jute mill workers' problems seriously enough."
The industry won't survive if the workers are neglected and forced to suffer even more, Ali noted.
"They are refusing to return to work until their demands are met," he said. "Many say it would be better to die in protest than die of starvation."
Bangladesh has long been known as a fertile agricultural land where farmers cultivated jute in abundance.
Until the early 1980s, the country exported millions of tons of the plant to international markets a year, including cloth and other products.
Its importance to the economy over the years is hard to overstate: it formerly accounted for a third of manufacturing output and ranked as the nation's top agricultural export, serving as a cash crop for over three million small farm households.
In fact, jute has played a key role in the economic development of Bengal — the eastern part of the Indian subcontinent — as a whole, including the Indian state of West Bengal.
However those glory days are now long gone as demand has skyrocketed for alternatives like nylon and polythene.
As a result, the BJMC has only seen one profitable year (fiscal 2010) since 1983 due to shrinking international demand, according to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS).
In 40 years, the BJMC has closed over 50 mills and downsized its workforce by over 60 percent.
The industry bounced back in the 1990s when it diversified its product ranges into canvas, sacking cloth, hessian, tarpaulin, shopping bags, tobacco sheets, and decorative items.
Yet just as its prospects were brightening it took another hammering six years ago as demand from most of its major export markets — India, Thailand, Syria, Iran, Egypt, and Indonesia — sheared off, the BBS data shows.
The government jumped in to bail the industry out about a decade ago, pumping in almost US$900 million in a bid to rescue it.
But it wasn't enough. The BJMC is now seeking another $40 million just to clear all the unpaid salaries.
Ali the trade unionist said internal problems are strangling the corporation.
"There is a huge amount of corruption and mismanagement at the top levels, no strategic planning or competitive zeal, and the technology and machinery they use for production is outdated," he opined.
"The jute mills have been sick for a long time, and they will die slowly unless some serious reforms are implemented."
Resurrecting a dying industry
Despite the industry's woes, entrepreneurs maintain there is enough demand for jute products both at home and abroad to get it back on its feet.
"The world has changed, so you need to change with it," said Ananda Placid Gomes, deputy director of CORR-The Jute Works (CJW).
"In order to survive, we not only have to reform, but excel," he added.
CJW is the nation's leading fair trade manufacturer and exporter of jute products. It is supported by Caritas Bangladesh, the charity arm of the Catholic Church.
The CJW used to source all of its jute from the BJMC but it now relies more on private mills. Gomes said the corporation began falling from grace after it developed a reputation for high prices, poor quality, and late deliveries.
"Now we find the private jute mills deliver faster, cheaper, better," Gomes told ucanews.com.
The Caritas-backed enterprise saw its exports hit $1 million a year nearly a decade ago, but revenue was double that last year, he said.
"The BJMC is counting its losses as a result of sloppy management and ingrained graft, but the private sector is faring much better," Gomes said.
"We are seeing new demand for jute globally, in line with a growing sense of environmental awareness, so we believe the future is looking bright," he said, noting how jute is "greener" than polythene and nylon products due to their lack of biodegradability, which creates waste that is hard to dispose of.
Gomes said the agency is eyeing exports of $3 million by 2030.
"By then we will have doubled our workforce to 12,000 to keep pace with what we anticipate will be soaring demand," he added.
Meanwhile, state-run mill worker Shahidul Islam is holding out hope the bad days will soon be over in his side of the industry.
"We've been through so much hardship. We just pray the government starts to take our suffering seriously," Islam said.
"Of course the priority is getting our wages paid, but we also need to see better working conditions at the mills so we can work more efficiently and help to revive this once-great industry."