Struggle of the marginalised versus the millionaire club

I read a report on 23 December 2023 in The Guardian with much unease. The headlines could be called click-bait: ‘Woman making jumpers for UK turns to sex work to pay bills.’ The story is of Bangladesh. On the banks of the river in Keraniganj. They used a pseudonym for the woman – Ruby Rafiq. She has a 16-year-old son and 13-year-old daughter. Her husband has abandoned her. Every night when her children go to bed, she creeps out from the house and roams the streets in search of clients. She earns 200 taka at times, at times 400. Once a client lured her with a promise of 500 taka, took her to a gang of 10 and assaulted her. It is a pitiful tale. She lives such a painful life because the 8000 taka she earns as a garment factory worker is inadequate to run the family. At first she started eating less to ensure enough food for the children. Later this too was no longer possible. Finally for the sake of additional earnings, she began to slip out of the house at night. The Guardian reports that she and other garment factory workers like her have been busy making festive jumpers with images of Santa Claus and such on the front, for the big brands in the UK. These garment workers get the lowest wages in the world. They earn less than half a penny any hour.

I was speaking of my unease. The Guardian may have written about Ruby Rafiq’s plight to highlight the sufferings, the struggles, demands, the discrimination and exploitation of 4 million garments workers, to empathise with their predicament, but does it also not send out a wrong message to the world about Bangladesh’s fighting garment workers? I am not saying that Ruby Rafiq’s story is fabricated. But does not this report rather simplify things in a misconception that 4 million garment workers have all become Ruby Rafiq?

Most of our members of parliament candidates are multi-millionaires and those who are contesting in the election are mostly businessmen by profession. In other words, the parliament is becoming a millionaire club.

However, Bangladesh is steadily becoming a hub of disparity and inhumanity. Yesterday (28 December 2023)The Daily Star headlines read ‘Top 10pc have 40 pc of income’. Referring to the government’s ‘Household Income and Expenditure Survey 2022’, they pointed out that 30 per cent of the income generated in Bangladesh is concentrated within the top 5 per cent of the households. Besides, income accruing to the bottom 5 per cent of the households was 0.37 per cent and this income disparity was increasing by the day. The Gini coefficient stood at 0.499 in 2022, in contrast to 0.482 in 2016.

Such complicated math, terminology and charges hardly convey the real picture. We can see the increasing inequalities with our naked eye. TIB says one of our ministers has a 23.12 billion taka (2,312 crore taka) business overseas and has not made mention of this in his election affidavit. Common folk like us cannot even conceive what massive assets and wealth a person with an over 20 billion taka business abroad, has in the country. Most of our members of parliament candidates are multi-millionaires and those who are contesting in the election are mostly businessmen by profession. In other words, the parliament is becoming a millionaire club.

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Where have all the politicians gone? Politicians who would only wear ‘khaddar’ (local handloom fabric). There were some leaders who would have to wait for their shirt to be washed and dried before wearing it to go out. Their fathers were even zemindars, but they broke away from the class of the landed gentry voluntarily in order to establish a classless society! Maulana Bhasani would live in a thatched roofed house with mud floors, donating his land and property to build up various charitable institutions. In his ‘Unfinished Memoirs’, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman wrote about an event that took place in the 1954 election in his own area:

“I remember an extremely poor old woman was waiting for a few hours by the roadside after she heard I would be passing that way. When she saw me, she grasped my hand and said, ‘Please come and sit in my thatched hut.’ I held her hand and went to her home. There were many people with me. She rolled out a mat on the floor for me to sit and treated me to a bowl of milk, a paan (betel leaf) and handed me a four-anna (25paisa) coin. She said, “Please eat and take this coin, I have nothing to give.” My eyes filled with tears. I sipped the milk and added some notes to the coin and handed it back to her, telling her I just needed her blessings, that her blessings could never be repaid with money. She did not take the money, but stroked by head and face, saying, “The prayers of the poor are with you, son.” Tears fell silently from my eyes. As I left her house, I promised in my mind that I would never cheat the people.”

We are cheating these same people! We are insulting them! How are the people of the Kurigram chars surviving, on how little they survive, with what meagre income they live, how are the families seeking shelter in the coastal embankments, how are they, how are those who take to the waves of the angry sea to catch fish, who venture into the Sundarbans to gather honey and golpata (nipa palm leaves)!

There’s a Netflix series called ‘Tales by Light’. The documentary begins with a scene of Dhaka’s children involved in hazardous labour. Our eyes are pained to see our Dhaka city children making utensils with red hot metal, melting rubber to make balloons, scavenging in the garbage dumps! We don’t have to go so far. How much do the security guards in front of our offices, our buildings, earn a month? Has anyone ever asked? Have you asked how much the uniformed cleaners in our office earn? How do they survive on 8000 to 12,000 taka a month? What do they send home to their families? How to they afford the commute, their house rent, how do they pay for treatment when they fall ill? Their pains and sufferings are hidden in front of our very eyes. But do we have any idea how little the teacher of a non-government kindergarten earns?

It is easy to understand why there are such long lines in front of our fair-price trucks. In this country there are persons who own billions of taka. This includes bribes, money borrowed from banks with no intention of return, money earned from e-commerce and share market scams leaving the people reeling in the streets, money made from recruitments, tender manipulations, money misappropriated by trade syndicates that push up the price of chillies and onions overnight, money from land, water and forest grabbers, drug trade, casinos, smuggling, hundi through which most of the money is siphoned off overseas. Bangladesh is in the record books on two heads. One, producing multi-millionaires, and two, laundering money overseas.

On the flip side there are the poor. There are 40 million people still poor. What do we pride ourselves about in this country! It has been 52 years since we gained independence!

While I will unequivocally state that The Guardian article may not seem representative to us, I will say with equal clarity that such inequality cannot continue in this country. This disparity must be reduced. The state must place priority in taking up programmes for the poor, for the poverty-stricken areas. But who are coming to represent the people in parliament? The leaders of the business establishments! Will they be able to grasp the depth of the 4 million people’s despair in this country?

* Anisul Hoque is managing editor at Prothom Alo and a writer.

* This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir


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