|Bangladesh’s jute industry once employed 250,000 people, but now less than
50,000 people work in the manufacturing of the fabric
They once called it the golden fibre, because jute was so lucrative – at one time Bangladesh’s biggest foreign-currency earner. But as Al Jazeera’s Tony Birtley finds, the golden days of the industry are well and truly over.
If you own a carpet, the chances are the jute backing was made in Bangladesh.
The industry employed 250,000 people in nearly 80 mills.
Today less than 50,000 people work in the jute business. Only a handful of factories remain in operation and the industry is dying, the result of 30 years of mismanagement and corruption.
In Khulna, south western Bangladesh, they have suffered the consequences. It is a region heavily dependent on jute.
Eight state owned mills in the area six hours’ drive from Dhaka, the capital, have been shut down in the last year alone.
Those that still operate have antiquated equipment and production is hampered by frequent power cuts.
The job losses have seriously affected the community.
Sultana Kamal, a former jute minister, said: “Many of the workers have not been paid compensation, the hospitals were closed, the schools were closed.
“And when they closed the Adamjee Mill, the biggest in this particular area, a lot of people, the children and the women, had to suffer a lot because there’s nothing really to bring them back to a position where they could look after themselves.”
In a poor region with few job prospects, it is hard for the growing numbers of former jute workers in Khulna to fend for themselves.
They feel bitter and abandoned.
Abdul Rahman, the union leader of People’s Jute Mill, said: “The future of the workers is bleak, since they don’t have any pension or savings.
“Whatever we used to earn, we have to spend for our meals.
“We are living from hand to mouth. If we don’t get our jobs back, our future will be hopeless.”
World Bank reforms
The decline and fall of the jute industry accelerated when the World Bank introduced major restructuring.
The programme involved closing and downsizing mills and privatising 18 others. It was an attempt at improving productivity along Western lines.
Rahman said: “Following the World Bank’s recommendations, the government is destroying our industry and laying off the workers.
“Whoever is in power, it’s their responsibility to ensure safety of the workers and guarantee their jobs.
“But instead of increasing productivity, they are hampering it.”
Tara Begum feels the effects.
She does not have air conditioning, and lives with her two teenage children in a one room shack near some railway tracks.
The widow lost her job in a jute mills after 10 years, now they often have to scavenge for food and she makes just a few dollars a week from odd jobs.
She said: “I couldn’t afford to continue my children’s schooling.
“My son had no choice but to drop out of school and work as a manual worker.
“Now we don’t know how to survive. This government has turned our lives into hell.”
Jesmin Begum, Tara’s daughter, said: “We’ve been through a lot of suffering since my mother lost her job.
“There were times when we had nothing to eat for days.”
The jute industry is not dead yet but it may be on the brink.
The future is bleak and with the possibility of more layoffs and more closures for some poor people it could get even more desperate.