Monday, April 24, 2006

Nothing to Lose but their Chains

A change-- slow but steady-- has taken place in our labour market-- because they are cheap, more and more women are hired for hard physical work like masonry or brick-breaking, a job long been put aside for men. These women-workers are ruthlessly exploited in a capitalist economic system that is shamelessly male chauvinist and that can only survive by base profiteering. Their gender sticks them out in a crowd of male workers and their employers strip them off the basic benefits that any human being should be entitled to in a civilised society. Like the forlorn days of slavery, these women-workers have nothing to lose but the invisible chain that shackles them.

In a neon-lit street Nazli awaits her turn in a queue with an empty pallet in hand. The droplets of sweat that fall from her forehead or a rivulet that flows on her waist may testify her long work hours that have started early in the morning. Nazli moves forward when the man standing in front of her staggers away with a pallet-full of sand on his head. Her hand tautens and her torso stoops as she slowly takes the receptacle on a small coiled cap made of a piece of soiled lungi, carefully split in two. She lurches in the dark, unsteadily picking her way through the seven-storied building, which is under construction for the last six months. This time round she has to deliver the cone of sand to the mixer, on the third floor, near the veranda where a tribe of masons prepares a mixture of cement, sand and pellets.

She is not the only woman at the building site. Ten others are also there; most of them carry bricks and sand. The clean blue sky suddenly darkens and it is going to rain soon. Nazli knows, be it a beating sun or pouring, rain she has to move on with her work. For her, life remains an everyday struggle.

Women-labourers across the country are being exploited for their gender: Nazli earns Tk 50 a day whereas Hassan, her husband, earns twice the amount for the same work. Habibur Rahman, a gender expert at Care Bangladesh, puts it into a greater perspective. "There is a preconceived notion that a woman’s rightful place is at the household where she should keep her husband’s house," he says. Though reality proves otherwise, on the job market popular prejudice runs in favour of men, as they are perceived to be more hardworking. "In reality," Rahman says, "as far as manual labour is concerned, women are more productive and sincere than men".

But that hardly counts; Nazli is a case in point: Nurul, the building contractor under whose supervision Nazli works, agrees that she carries more pallets of sand that most of the men, but he thinks women should not get more than men because that would put their "families" into trouble. Interestingly in most of the instances, when the issue of increasing their wage turns up, women labourers face a great solid wall, defended heavily by their husbands. "Husbands cannot stand their wives getting equal wages because they think it will give their wives a louder voice in decision making," says Rahman.

Hassan admits that it would have made their lives more bearable if Nazli had earned more, but he guards against the idea of an equal wage. This belief is widespread, and it is, in fact, their husbands, the women-labourers have to fight with to get a raise. Rahman draws an example from a site in Cox’s Bazaar where both women and men had been employed to dig the earth. When Care moved for an equal right to wages for women-labourers who were getting a third of what their male compeers were getting, the organisation confronted the first barrier from male workers. "For men are befouled by patriarchal values, most of them think if women earn more they will lose ‘control’ of them," Rahman says.

Employers, on the other hand, refused to pay more to woman-labourers and there is a steady stream of labour coming out of the outlying areas. Rahman and fellow Care members bargained and had come to a compromise: From Tk 50, women’s wage was raised to Tk 70 against men’s Tk 150 a day.

There is a law in the country against discrimination at work; it stipulates that, men and women should be treating equally, but this regulation is merely on paper. "On an average a female worker earns one third of what a man gets," says Rokeya Rafique, director of Karmojibi Nari, a non-governmental organisation. Rokeya highlights the fact that National Wages and Productivity Commission (NWC) had set a minimum wage of Tk 930 in 1994, and at that time workers were told that every three years the commission would review the wage structure. But that promise has never kept: in the last 12 years, Rafique says, the NWC members have sat only once and even on that occasion they spent their time on endless trivialities.

"It is sad that," says Rahman, "while the price of essentials is skyrocketing, these poor people have been told to make do with a Tk 930 minimum wage." But in different cases even this paltry sum of money is not given to the workers.
For women-labourers like Nazli work is an uphill struggle against an apathetic society. Beyond the discriminations a woman faces at work lie the exploitations she has to endure just to earn the day’s meal. Nazli has never heard of maternity leave; she lives hand to mouth, she says, her employer will turn her away when she bears a child. "Every woman who works in this sector has been denied of maternity or sick leaves," Rokeya says. The law is discriminatory as it is, she continues, for a government employee is entitled to 4 months maternity leave whereas it is 3 months for female workers. But when it comes to construction workers, this rule is grossly flouted.

The law, which exists just on paper, requires owners to set up a day care centre where children of female workers will be reared till they reach their sixth year. Most young mothers do not have any other way but to bring their children to the sites to breast-feed; at times it is difficult to get a secluded place where they could nurse the little ones. Though this quasi-feudal society has not quite learned to make room for them into the workforce, more and more women are coming out of the ghettos, braving the odd glance of the society.

"Women workers almost at every site have to share toilets with male workers," Rahman points out. Access to basic amenities, in fact, a far cry in an industry where taking leave for the day costs one a day’s meal; one may as well lose one’s job.

This is not Nazli’s first job; before this she used to work at a neighbouring site at a higher wage. One day she did not turn up at work for she was taken ill; still sick, she went to work the next day and found out that the "gap had been filled up"-- the employer had hired a cheap new hand in her place.

Nazli does not have a choice either. She left her village in Monga-ridden Rangpur for a better fortune in Dhaka eight months ago. Meeting Hassan in a shanty had led to their marriage, but a sense of financial security for which she had hit this cruel city still eludes her. Every day, Nazli says, she goes to work with a tremor in her heart. "Hassan brings home more, but what I earn goes on our house-rent and if I lose the job, we both will be undone," she says.
In fact capitalism banks on this sense of pervasive insecurity prevalent among the workers. "Women workers do not have that minimum bargaining power which men wield, and for this reason their job is less secure and they are constantly manipulated by contractors and fellow male workers," Rahman says. Most of them, he goes on, are not skilled; this, colleagued with their sexuality have made them the softest target of this capitalist economy.
Rahman says it is nearly impossible to organise them into a group as they keep changing jobs. These invisible women, who toil in the heat and get drenched in the rain, are ignored in major political and economic decision making.

The apartment complex where Nazli and Hassan are working will be finished in a year or so. Nurul the contractor boasts that the lobby is going to be furnished in an Art Deco style. From the mural, which is going to adorn the entrance, we shift our focus to a six feet by six feet room, which Nazli and Hassan call their home. The shack, the second in a row of around 50 shanties, is made of bamboo sticks and sheets of polythene. One has to hunch into the room, and whenever a rough wind blows the polythene-roof sways in the gust; there are times when the couple wakes up at night in pouring rain.

"Most of the female workers work at night," says Habibur Rahman, "because only at this time they can avoid the prying eyes of men". There are other factors at work too: In the day women workers have a list of errands to run-- from housekeeping to cooking to attending ailing family members…The list is endless.

Coming out of the four walls of the house has given these women some degree of freedom. At the same time, thinks Rahman, women have yet to have any say in decision-making in the family. "At the end of the day," he says, "she has to give the money away to her husband". Even their marriages are arranged by the male members of their family.
Some are left to face an uncertain future by their husbands. Many slip into underground economy-- the dream of a quick change in fortune lures many women workers into peddling. In each of the cases, the threat of abject poverty looms large over one’s shoulder; the dream of making a quick buck in Dhaka, the capital, where money floats in the air, turns into a recurring nightmare.

They remain a dense bunch of sad faces in a crowd, invisible to everyone-- to the nouveaux riche, armed with the money earned from blackmailing and bootlegging, in their chauffeur-driven cars; or to the greedy middle classes who blame each and everyone in this "accursed" country for their misfortunes and talk about emigrating to the fairyland across the Atlantic. It is indeed not ironic that the women who build other people’s dwellings, in most cases, are themselves left homeless.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

For a Free Election

Every day Abdul Mannan wakes up early in the morning to sweep the pavement before his makeshift tea-stall in the city’s Panthapath area. Be it a warm summer’s day or a foggy wintry morning, life, for this 50-year-old has remained a long sombre struggle. Sweeping done, Mannan will click open the shutter-- made of scrapped iron, gunnysack and sheets of polythene-- and place himself inside the five-square-feet shop, which also houses containers-full of sugar and tea, and a rusted stove.

The tea-seller, a supporter of the BNP, believes it is his duty to vote for the sheaf of paddy symbol, no matter who the candidate is. In the last general elections, Mannan voted for someone, whom he had never seen; save for the routine photographs that the candidate put in his campaign posters. "I did not know Mahbub sahib (the candidate, who later got elected to the parliament) at all; but I believed in the ideology of Shahid Zia, and that was why I could not help voting for the BNP."

The main opposition Awami League, too, has got a significant number of blind voters who do not consider a particular candidate’s eligibility, but are loyal to the party. This trend, however disturbing it is, has repeated itself in the last three elections that have taken place since the restoration of democracy in 1991.

Apart from this mindset, the electoral system is plagued by the use of black money and muscle power. "Transparency is a prerequisite for a free and fair election; it is a necessity that the prime minister and the leader of the opposition publish lists of the money, wealth and properties they possess," says Dr Borhanuddin Khan Jahangir, professor of Political Science at Dhaka University.

"The fact of the matter is," says Amjad Hossain, a schoolteacher, "most of our politicians have numerous sources of income that are black by any standard, and are beyond the grasp of the EC or any other institution."

Professor Jahangir agrees: "In different developing democracies elections have become a platform for buying and selling general people. And for this reason elections cannot be held in a free atmosphere." He believes that unless black money is driven out of politics, no one can expect a minimum level playing field where "good and honest candidates" can thrive.
"Neither the EC nor the statesmen has been able to save the elections from becoming a bazaar, where every voter carries a price tag," Professor Jahangir laments.

In fact, in May 2005, the Appellate Division of the High Court (HC) passed a judgement, directing the Election Commission (EC) to gather personal and financial information about the prospective candidates. This includes the candidates’ educational qualification, past criminal record and the sources of their dependants’ income. This historic rule also requires the EC to reveal to the public other facts such as bank loans that the candidates took from different commercial banks; and in the case of previously elected ones, details of the commitments they made in the previous elections and how they have fulfilled them.

This directive, however, has not been fully implemented. "It is a pity that in the last two by-elections that were followed the Election Commissions did not comply with this historic HC order," says Dr Debapriya Bhattachariya, executive director of Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), which recently organised a Citizens’ Dialogue on National Election 2007: The Civil Society Initiative in Accountable Development Efforts. He thinks it is ironic that the EC does not consider the directive compulsory and "no matter what the level of economic and administrative freedom is given to the commission, it will not be able to run independently if it lacks free thinkers in its hierarchy".

Professor Jahangir’s observations are even more scathing. "The rich people in this country are armed, powerful and ruthless. These were not seen in politics even during the colonial era-- their world evolves around the money they have swindled from people; the ‘cadres’ and hoodlums, and, the police, on behalf of the state, guard them," he says.

He thinks when these people get nominations from different political parties, every daydream we have about democracy turns into an obstinate nightmare. Obliquely referring to some ruling party high-ups, Professor Jahangir says, "The money that has been accumulated through corruption, looting and ‘25 percent dealings’ is going to be invested in the next general elections".

In the last three general elections all the BNP and AL candidates crossed the stipulated 5-lakh-taka ceiling for campaign purposes. "The biggest of all jokes," says Amjad, "is that all the major parties have flouted this regulation, and no one has so far been punished."
In fact, most of the BNP-AL candidates spend no less than TK 5 crore to win votes, which makes electioneering far beyond the means of any honest worthy politician. This trend coupled with insatiable hunger for power and money of most of the elected MPs have corrupted a system that has already succumbed to corruption.

The system of caretaker government has been established in the run up to the general elections in 1996 by a reluctant BNP government. It tried to ward off the opposition demand to incorporate the idea to the constitution by terming it as "absurd". But when it gained popularity among the masses, the then government dissolved the parliament, held a farcical general election and later amended the constitution in favour of a provision for a caretaker government.
In most of the cases, the outgoing governments plant party loyalists in the administration to reap benefits during the elections. "Take this government," says Professor Jahangir, "Khaleda Zia’s government has made the Police its own group of handymen and has spread its clout in the armed forces." He thinks that corruption and nepotism create an environment where the Powerful can always buy off the police and local administration; in the grassroots level, the army fails to maintain neutrality and the district administrators surrender to greed, turning the parliament into a mere rubber stamp.

An inordinate amount of skepticism shrouds the EC’s activities. The Chief Election Commissioner (CEC) MA Aziz’s recent decision to make a new voters list has drawn widespread criticism from his own office. Two sitting Commissioners objected to this decision; the CEC, in his turn, ignored the opposition to his views. The government, on the other hand, came with a flag of rescue-- lately it appointed two new Commissioners so that the beleaguered CEC enjoys a majority in the EC meetings.

In some deplorable instances, BNP members were employed as enumerators, who put voters on their list at their whim. "I am not a voter, they did not come to my house," says Professor Jahangir, who has been teaching for around three decades.

But at the end of the day it is the people who can change the course of the events, no matter how the party in power tries to manipulate the course of the elections, thinks Amjad Hossain.
Issues like price hike of essentials or the rise of religious militancy is going to challenge the established paradigm. "This time round no one should take my vote for granted," says Abdul Mannan, who is planning to switch to old-newspaper vending; "It is because of the rising price of sugar," he smiles embarassedly, "Sugar stings". Angst and delights of general voters like Mannan are going to be decisive in the next elections. Only time can tell if the BNP and AL will be able to fool with their poor voters again; the old tricks may not always work.

Dhaka, Bangladesh
April 4, 2006.