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Hard lives on highway

  • Published at 07:51 pm May 3rd, 2017
It was a rainy Thursday afternoon and Fokrul Amin, a frail, tired man in a grimy vest, climbed out of his truck and slammed the door. He had been driving for seven hours straight. “Summer means being drenched in your own sweat all day and feeling ill all the time,” he said. For Amin, it’s also a season of harrowing delays. Roads flood with intermittent and unusual rain and sweeping winds. Traffic won’t move. Vehicles break down. And even if none of that happens, Amin is forced to stop every so often and climb to the top of his truck to check that the goods he is ferrying are still well covered. “It makes it harder to concentrate in this heat. The increased traffic in the highways makes it even worse. So, when I get a free road, I have to speed up. The other vehicles do the same. That makes the highway a dangerous place” Amin's words are indeed true. As per the recent study of Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies (BILS), the research and advocacy organisation which prepares an annual report on the number of workers' deaths in workplace accidents, long distance transport workers comprise the highest chunk of the death toll. A total of 699 workers had died in workplace related accidents in 2016 out of which, 249 died in workplace related accidents in the transport sector. In 2015, the respective numbers were 363 and 125.

The hard lives of transport workers

Long distance drivers like Fokrul Amin lives a hard and solitary life, spending weeks on the road at a time while hauling cargo and people from point A to point B, covering vast distances on seemingly endless stretches of road. “In our field of work, the risk is high yet the gain is very low in comparison,” said Atahar Ali, a driver of a transport line. Ali said that he is hired on a contractual basis – the more trips he can make, the better his earning. “We don’t get paychecks like a regular employee at the end of the month. We get our salary based on the trips. It’s not an easy task to drive on the highway on a daily basis. Besides, the resting time that we get is very low,” he said. Romesh Chandra Ghosh, owner of Shyamoli Paribahan said that, if one of their drivers makes a trip of 250km, he usually gets a resting period for four hours before sitting behind the steering wheel again. If that driver crosses 400km, then he gets a resting period of six hours. Through talking with a number of drivers of the same transport line, it was known that such resting norms are hardly being practised there. This is because the drivers are compelled to cut their resting period as they are given the catch of earning more if they make more trips. When asked about that, Ghosh said, drivers are being managed through a proper management comprising of several supervisors. “Yes, there is the option of overtimes, and in the transport sector, drivers actually ask for it; it's not like we impose it on them. But, in long distance driving, we have to think of passenger’s safety, so we make sure that no sleep-deprived driver sits behind the wheel.” Khondoker Enayetullah, Secretary General of Bangladesh Sharak Paribahan Samity and owner of Ena Paribahan said, through the association, they have imposed the rule of giving proper rest to long distance drivers. Mohammad Mozammel Haque Chowdhury, Secretary General of Bangladesh Passengers Welfare Association however said, since the transport workers lack education, proper training and job insecurity, their profession has increasingly turned into a dangerous one. “The rules of the association or the government hardly matter. Unless the drivers get job security and they are well paid, they will be forced to spend extra hours behind the wheel to earn their living.” Besides, such long work hours also forces them to be away from family for extended periods, which puts added psychological and sociological stress on them.

What the data says

Atahar Ali said that he hardly gets to spend quality time with his family. “Sometimes, I get to see my two sons after an entire week,” he said. The number of long distance transports registered under Bangladesh Road Transport Authority (BRTA) is 40,935. However, it is estimated that another 5,000 unregistered long distance vehicles are in use. In each of the vehicles, there is at least one driver, one supervisor and one assistant. Considering the workforce engaged at the terminal and the repairing workshops, the number of workers involved in long distance vehicles is estimated to be 1,837,40. Another BILS study conducted on the long distance transport workers said, in long distance transport sector, 100% of the workers are male workers and around 92% of the workers are involved with some sort of trade union. The workers under 18 comprises of roughly 4% of the workforce. More than 64% of them have education upto primary level. Only 24% of the workers have passed SSC examination. There is no formal appointment letter for the workers working in the long distance transport sector. Almost 100% of the workers work here for more than eight hours a day. Around 46% of the workers work for more than 15 hours a day while 40% work for more than 13 hours a day. Around 20% of the workers work without taking any day off in a month. More than 90% of the workers here don’t have any weekly or government holidays. If they get free time, around 48% spend that time with family at home, 16% go out with their families, around 10% spend their time with their children while 12% mostly spend the day by sleeping. Around 94% of the workers here are hired on contractual basis. The monthly salary is usually between Tk10,000 to Tk20,000. Syed Sultan Uddin Ahmed, BILS Executive Director said, transport workers must be helped to better understand their rights relating to workplace safety. Employers too have a vital role to play and need to be fully aware of their obligations. Workplace safety should be top priority for them. In case of transport workers, that should be in the form of giving drivers proper rest, better pay and proper functioning vehicles.