The plight of transport workers during blockades and hartals
Dr Matiur Rahman
In the heart of Bangladesh's bustling cities and towns lies an intricate network of transport workers whose daily toil keeps the country moving. However, their livelihoods often hang in the balance during times of political unrest marked by blockades and hartals. These disruptions not only bring the nation's mobility to a grinding halt but also cast a shadow of uncertainty over the lives of those dependent on the transport sector.
For many transport workers in Bangladesh, their daily labour serves as the lifeblood of their families. From rickshaw pullers navigating crowded streets to bus drivers navigating highways, each day's earnings sustain households, fund education, and put food on the table. However, the spectre of blockades and hartals poses a significant threat to this fragile economic ecosystem.
Blockades, often initiated by political parties or groups, involve the physical obstruction of roads, highways, and transportation arteries. Similarly, hartals, or general strikes, entail the enforced closure of businesses and public transport, disrupting the flow of daily life. While these actions are employed as tools of protest or demonstration, they come at a steep cost for those whose livelihoods are tied to the smooth functioning of transportation.
In Dhaka, the sprawling capital of Bangladesh, the distinctive silhouette of rickshaws weaving through traffic is a familiar sight. However, during blockades and hartals, these ubiquitous modes of transport become scarce commodities. For rickshaw pullers like Mohammed, whose sole source of income depends on ferrying passengers across the city, such disruptions strike a severe blow.
Mohammed, a father of three, has been pulling a rickshaw for over a decade, earning a modest income to support his family. However, during a recent blockade, his daily earnings plummeted as roads were barricaded, and potential passengers were deterred from venturing out. With each passing day of the blockade, the financial strain on Mohammed's family grew. Unable to meet rent and essential expenses, the looming threat of eviction added to his worries.
Beyond the rickshaw pullers, the transport sector encompasses a diverse array of workers, including bus drivers and conductors, whose livelihoods are intertwined with the ceaseless movement of people across the country. However, during political blockades and hartals, the wheels of their buses come to an abrupt halt, leaving them grappling with the dual challenges of lost income and uncertain futures.
Take the case of Hasan, a bus driver from Chittagong. Hasan, the sole breadwinner for his family of five, navigates the bustling city streets daily, ferrying passengers from one destination to another. However, during a recent hartal, his income evaporated as buses remained idle due to safety concerns and the fear of vandalism.
Without a steady income, Hasan faced the stark reality of being unable to provide for his family's basic needs. The mounting pressure of unpaid bills and expenses weighed heavily on him, overshadowing any semblance of stability he had painstakingly built.
The impact of disrupted livelihoods is not confined to the transport workers alone; it ripples through their families and communities. The loss of income exacerbates existing vulnerabilities, pushing families deeper into financial precarity. Necessities such as food, healthcare, and education became unattainable luxuries for many during these periods of unrest.
Families that were once on the margins now find themselves pushed further into poverty. Children may be forced to drop out of school to alleviate financial burdens, perpetuating cycles of limited opportunities and intergenerational poverty. The strain on mental health and well-being is palpable, as the uncertainty of when the next blockade or hartal will strike looms large.
Amid the adversity, transport workers in Bangladesh exhibit remarkable resilience, often resorting to adaptive strategies to weather the storm. Many diversify their sources of income, seeking odd jobs or temporary employment during periods of blockade or hartal. Some participate in informal money lending or engage in small-scale trade to sustain themselves through these turbulent times.
In rural areas, where agriculture plays a significant role, transport workers may pivot to farming activities during transport disruptions. However, these makeshift measures often provide temporary relief rather than sustainable solutions, and the lack of stable income sources perpetuates the cycle of vulnerability.
The plight of transport workers during blockades and hartals calls for urgent attention and collective action. While political protests are a fundamental democratic right, the disproportionate impact of these disruptions on the livelihoods of vulnerable workers warrants mitigation strategies and support mechanisms.
Firstly, there is a need for social safety nets and support programs tailored specifically for transport workers and their families during periods of political unrest. These initiatives could include financial assistance, access to healthcare, and educational support for affected families.
Secondly, dialogue and collaboration between stakeholders, including government bodies, political entities, and labour organizations, are essential. Constructive engagement aimed at finding alternative protest methods that minimize the economic fallout on vulnerable workers is crucial.
Thirdly, the development of contingency plans and emergency relief mechanisms can help mitigate the immediate financial strain on transport workers. Creating resilient systems that provide financial support and sustenance during disruptions will be vital in safeguarding livelihoods.
Lastly, advocacy for the protection of the rights of transport workers is paramount. Ensuring that workers are not subjected to exploitation or loss of wages due to disruptions beyond their control requires concerted efforts to enforce labour laws and regulations.
The livelihood situation of transport workers in Bangladesh during ongoing blockades and hartals underscores the human cost of political unrest. These disruptions, while serving as expressions of dissent or protest, have a profound impact on the lives of individuals and communities dependent on the transport sector.
Through the lens of case studies and personal narratives, the struggles and resilience of transport workers come to the fore. Their stories shed light on the urgent need for support mechanisms, proactive strategies, and collaborative efforts to safeguard the livelihoods of vulnerable workers during times of political upheaval.
As Bangladesh navigates the intricate balance between democratic rights and economic stability, the plight of transport workers stands as a poignant reminder of the tangible human toll of political disruptions. Addressing their challenges requires a holistic approach that prioritizes the welfare and livelihoods of those who keep the wheels of the nation turning, even in the face of adversity.
The writer is a researcher and development worker