Salinity drives rise of debt bondage
Abu Bakar Siddique

  • Brick kiln workers fleeing unemployment in their salinity-affected home districts in the south-western coastal belt shape bricks at a brick field in Ashulia on the outskirts of Dhaka city  
    Photo- ABU BAKAR SIDDIQUE

Increasing levels of salinity in Satkhira and Khulna districts has spurred a wave of migration to the capital where many labourers from the coastal districts are becoming ensnared in indentured servitude.

Unemployed men from the south-western coastal areas of the country commit to a season of work in the brick fields that ring Dhaka city in exchange for advance pay. They agree to receiving the remainder of their pay at the end of their contract term.

While not the most cruel example of debt slavery, the retention of pay is certainly a compulsion for labourers to fulfil their contract terms.

The true enforcer in this coercive work arrangement is environmental degradation: unchecked salinity.

The encroachment of salt water has decimated agriculture and fisheries in the south-western coastal belt, generating the migration of unemployed labourers who find work and credit at the brick fields surrounding Dhaka city.

Kiln owners outsource the management of labour to a “vata sardar” whose job it is to recruit and retain, by means of withheld pay, labourers to work the brick kilns.

Often from salinity-affected areas themselves, vata sardars, recruit unemployed men by offering them up-front advances of about a third of their pay at the beginning of the brick firing season. The remainder is made over to the labourers at the end of the season.

These wages are the only source of income for the kiln workers fleeing unemployment in their home districts. Money made in half a year of work at the kilns sustains their families for the entire year.

Work gangs

The average size of a work gang under a vata sardar is 24 labourers.

Ashraf Hossain Gazi, Nur Hossain, Ishar Ali and Amirul Islam work as kiln labourers in the Ashulia area on the outskirts of Dhaka city.

Satkhira native Mohammad Asad is labourer Ashraf Hossain’s vata sarder. He has been recruiting and managing labourers for brick kilns for 12 years.

“Putting together a team for the brick kilns is now easier than it was a few years ago. Many villagers are interested now that increasing salinity has ruined the agriculture and fisheries in Satkhira and Khulna districts,” he says.

Ashraf Hossain says: “I joined the brick kiln with the others last week and will stay here for the next six months.” He has worked seasonally at the kilns for the last six years.

Ashraf says he and his fellow workers cannot find work in their home districts.

“I have contracted for 6 months of work for Tk45,000. I received Tk20,000 as an advance payment three months ago while I was at home. The vata sardar contacted me and paid the advance, which I have given to my family who live in Kashibari under Shyamnagar in Satkhira,” he says. “The rest will be paid after I complete the contract period.”

The brick fields are the labourers’ home for the next six months. Nobody will leave the workplace before the brick firing season ends in May. They will work, sleep and eat there while they fulfil their labour contract.

Causes and effects

Kiln owners invest several crores of Taka in their factories and are hit hard by fluctuations in the labour supply. The loss of even a few labourers mid-season can result in huge losses.

“To ensure continuous production, we manage the labourers via their vata sardars. If somebody is absent, the vata sardar is liable. That is why the vata sardars are harsh and pay the full wage after the season is done,” said Habibur Rahman, a brick kiln owner.

A few years ago when the level of salinity was not as bad as it is currently, Satkhira did not supply very much labour.

Now, boys like 15-year-old Nur Hossain from Kaliganj upazilla of Satkhira are working as labourers in the brick fields of Ashulia.

Nur Hossain says: “It is difficult for my old father to support our family of four from his income from a half-acre shrimp farm. He sent me here to work in the brick fields to help the family.”

According to the fifth assessment report of the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Bangladesh is identified as being at specific risk from climate change due to its exposure to sea-level rise and extreme events like salinity intrusion, drought, erratic rainfall and tidal surges.

Hydrology expert Professor Ainun Nishat says the reasons for increases in this type of bonded labour are “both economic and climate change-related.”

According to a study titled “Saline Soil of Bangladesh 2009” conducted by the Soil Resource Development Institute in 2009, around 1,020,000 hectares of land are affected by salinity in the Bangladeshi coastal areas. In 1973, the affected area was 833,000 hectares in the 19 coastal districts.

Currently, some 79,000 hectares of arable land out of 148,000 hectares salinity-affected arable land in Khulna district has been identified as being at the S3 level of salinity, or 8.1-16 dS/M.

Like Khulna, 62,000 hectares in Patuakhali; 99,000 hectares in Satkhira; 62,000 hectares in Bagerhat and 38,000 hectares of salinity-affected land in Barguna have been identified as being at S3 level. 

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