“If the mills get closed, how will we survive, what will happen to us? How will we eat, live or study? This is not fair!” – a weeping daughter of a mill worker speaks of her helplessness.
Once known as “the Golden Fibre”, Jute was a famous product best found in Bangladesh. Its fame has spread across the world for its 3745 varieties with which you can make practically anything. Jute, a natural fibre, and thus renewable, was abandoned though – for petroleum substitutes . Today, Jute is back. People want jute, they have experimented and now it seems the best option. But what happened during the days it was abandoned? – A tragedy unraveled.
Since 2002, Jute mills were closing down as polypropene started to replace the natural fibre . The World’s largest Jute Mill, Adamji Jute Mill was shut down for good. In the backdrop of continuous closing of jute mills one after another, in July 2007, Government of Bangladesh (GoB) took a number of decisions as regards to public sector jute mills and their poor performance. The major decisions included: closing down four jute mills – Peoples, Karnaphuli, Forat-Karnaphuli, and Kaomi and the retrenchment of 14,000 workers from 22 state-owned jute mills, out of which 6,000 workers were from the four closed down jute mills and another 8,000 workers were from the remaining 18 jute mills as a result of which the total work force of Bangladesh Jute Mills Corporation (BJMC) mills decreased by 50 per cent .
In the meantime, regular firing of the labourers in several state-run jute mills such as Star, Crescent, Platinum, Aleem, and Eastern were continuing. Lack of income, employment, proper food and exploitation by the government caused death of thousands of jute mill workers .
As days went by, numerous other jute mills in Khulna, Narshingdi, Demra, Narayanganj, Ghorashal and Chittagong started getting closed, leaving behind a train of blood and tragedies . The closing down of jute mills did not only cause deaths, and that is where the tragedy lies.
After 1971, the Jute Mills in Bangladesh started facing losses due to the emergence of polypropene, polyethene and the worst of all – complete mismanagement of the industry. Eventually, the donors’ policy of strict retrenchment of the sector, which the Bangladesh government did not oppose to, resulted in the shut-down of the factories one after another and layoffs of thousands of workers.
‘Siren’ , a, excellent documentary film by Mr. Sagar Molla focuses on the closure of several jute mills at Khalishpur in Khulna, witnesses the hunger and uncertainty that the workers’ families faced. The film records a time when future for these families only kept in store joblessness, starvation, death, suicide and prostitution. It is an excellent film to watch if one wants to see the true image of workers who live hand to mouth working hard all day and still have no voice for their future.
My own personal travels to Khulna and discussion with the labors clearly shows a picture of tragedy of epic proportions. Horrific stories of suicide, prostitution for one meal, and still being unable to linger on towards another day seem to have been the most common thing in a labourer’s life.
Amina, a prostitute from Digholia, Khalishpur says “We used to be a happy family. Father worked as a Jute mill worker while mother used to be in home. We even went to school for a while, until that tragic moment when the mill where father used to work shut down. There were huge protests, but they were of no use. Tragedies, one after another, collided with our lives and I saw my father’s dead body. He committed suicide, leaving us behind with no hope. Prostitutes are a common sight in some of the areas where once happy Jute Mill workers used to stay. I am one too, the brutality that brought me here cannot be mentioned. But it is something I will have to remember and suffer for the rest of my life.”
Stories like the above are very common. Today most of the closed mills are being reopened. Workers are getting jobs, but they are not the same workers. The lives destroyed will not be brought back.
So the question which now stands is “can this happen again?” Do “ethical treatment of workers” really deserve attention by consumers and voters world-wide?
Workers around the world suffer negligence and lack of unity, but none like the Jute Mill workers of Bangladesh. Even now, the minimum wage is yet to be implemented to this sector , and the question of healthcare policies for workers to be implemented is still a distant dream.
Around 33% of all jute comes from Bangladesh, making it the world’s second largest jute producer. Presently the jute is earning 5.4 percent of total export value .
Production of jute is highly labor-intensive, with about 15 million farmers involved in growing this cash crop, and 5 million more are involved with its processing, transportation, conversion, etc . It also creates seasonal employment for 48,000 women and 108,000 men on the land and 187,000 men and women in the mills.  With gradual increase in the number of mills and reopening of closed mills, the number of workers is climbing rapidly with hundreds of thousands of farmers getting involved in Jute Cultivation.
However, they are the most neglected with poor working conditions and health compared to any other sector in the country. Their current demand is to get a minimum wage which includes Tk 3200 as basic, Tk 1600 as house rent, Tk 500 as medical allowance and Tk 200 as conveyance (total of Tk 5,500/month or US$ 69/month), which was Tk 1250+500+200+100 (total of Tk 2050/month or US$25.75/month) in the previous wage structure. A six-member committee formed by Minimum Wage Board (MWB) under the Ministry of Labour approved the fresh minimum salary-structure  which has been rejected by the owners .
January 24, 2012 – Kasheful Hoda, Activist and Researcher, RISE Society
 ACS, Chemistry for Life. “The Discovery of Polypropylene and the Development of a New High-Density Polyethylene”: http://portal.acs.org/portal/acs/corg/content?_nfpb=true&_pageLabel=PP_ARTICLEMAIN&node_id=924&content_id=WPCP_007859&use_sec=true&sec_url_var=region1
 Munem Wasif, Blood splinter of jute, Bangladesh 2007: http://www.agencevu.com/stories/index.php?id=398&p=232
 Sagar Molla, “Siren” – Jute Labors following the death of the Industry. http://mollasagar.com/film/siren
 The Daily Stay Bangladesh, Demand for minimum wages. “Jute, textile mill workers agitate in Khulna” (September 24, 2012): http://www.thedailystar.net/newDesign/news-details.php?nid=250961
 Jute: http://www.katalyst.com.bd/docs/Jute.pdf
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 Salahuddin, “Feasibility Study of Jute Mill Setup in Bangladesh” (2011): http://www.studymode.com/essays/Feasibility-Study-Of-Jute-Mill-Setup-705360.html
 Mohammad Shahidual Islam, Mohammad Alauddin “World Production of Jute: A Comparative Analysis of Bangladesh.” International Journal of Management and Business Studies Vol. 2 (1), pp. 014-022, January 2012 © International Scholars Journals (http://internationalscholarsjournals.org)
 The Financial Express, Bangladesh “Owners reject govt-fixed minimum wage for private jute mill workers” (2012): http://www.thefinancialexpress-bd.com/more.php?news_id=129910&date=2012-05-17