The SAJA Photo Forum presents the work of photographers covering South Asia and its global diasporas in order to highlight important but often overlooked stories.
The Tragic Fibre
Text and photographs © Andrew Biraj
“Our life is like the factory’s spare junk. No one needs us now,” says Mozammel Haque, a 58-year-old jute mill supervisor at the Platinum jute mill in Khulna, Bangladesh. By that time all of the three major jute mills of the country had been closed down due to unexpected lay offs. Like thousands of other laborers, Mozammel Haque has been fired after 32 years of service.
As the world's largest jute-producing country, Bangladesh accounted for a significant amount of global exports until the early seventies. But since the government closed down the Adamjee jute mill (the largest jute mill in the world), calling it "unprofitable" in 2003 following the prescriptions of IMF and the World Bank, the whole jute industry in Bangladesh began to collapse.
Mozammel Haque was fired under the new labour law which stipulates retirement age 57 instead of the previous 60, but he is yet to receive his retirement benefits. He sits at the machine where he worked his entire life.
Bangladeshis are taught from childhood that jute is the key source of the economy. “The Golden Fibre” was something to be proud of in the developing nation. But this vibrant trade has been mired in corruption and unprofitability, forcing the government to close it down.
In April 2007 the workers protested in the streets after the government shut down the Platinum and Crescent jute mills in Khulna. The workers of those mills still had several months' worth of wages pending. Others were forced into what the military-driven interim government prefers to call "voluntary retirement." They have yet to be notified when their retirement benefits would be given.
can we give some food to our children? How can we survive now?”
asks Mozammel Haque. Sitting on an abandoned machine, he became emotional. The
huge mill area is deadly silent, the machines are covered with
dust, and the labor colonies just opposite to the factories are
grieving with frustration and uncertainty.
"How can we give some food to our children? How can we survive now?” asks Mozammel Haque. Sitting on an abandoned machine, he became emotional. The huge mill area is deadly silent, the machines are covered with dust, and the labor colonies just opposite to the factories are grieving with frustration and uncertainty.
I walked down to the misty labor colony secretly, sometimes at midnight, to talk with some laborers' wives. As a photojournalist, my presence may present a problem for the families. “We don’t know what is our fault. But why did we have to face such violence?” said Rahela Begum, a woman like a hundred others who faced the brutality of the police. As the laborers started to demand the pending wages, riot police attacked the workers' colony, beating even the women and children. Rahela’s husband had been also beaten by the police and sent to jail. She was still in danger, as the police could attack again at any time.
A woman describes the day police went home to home and arrested their husbands or sons. Following a series of strong demonstrations against the lay offs of the jute mill workers, authorities sent riot police into the colonies.
Since the government has closed down the major jute mills, thousands of workers have lost their jobs and women and children are facing misery. When the whole country is becoming fully dependent on foreign aid, the major source of local economy is closing down.
Based in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Andrew Biraj focuses on people living on the fringes of standard social, political, and environmental perspectives. His work has taken him from Bangladesh to Cambodia and the United Kingdom and has been featured in The Guardian, The Observer Magazine, Courier International, Saudi Aramaco World, and Himal South Asian. He was one of 12 photographers selected for the 2008 Joop Swart Masterclass grant, sponsored by World Press Photo.
You can see more of his work on his website.