Thousands of workers of different passenger vessels have been going through hard times with all launch, steamer and passenger boat services totally suspended since the beginning of the ongoing countrywide lockdown.
Launch and steamer communications between different southern districts and the capital came to a halt with the start of the countrywide lockdown on 5 April, imposed by the government in a bid to contain the sudden alarming spike in coronavirus infections.
People from the south-western districts of the country used to rush to Sadarghat, the lone river port in the capital, for journeys home. The lockdown has changed the familiar look of Sadarghat, replacing the usual hustle and bustle of the river port with absolute silence, besides throwing the livelihood of thousands of shipping workers into a state of uncertainty in the absence of any government incentive to assist them.
Sabuj is a sukani (worker) of Adventure-11 launch. "The money that was accumulated is all gone. I do not know how I will manage the money to send home for my family's maintenance. I am living from hand to mouth on the little amount of money paid by the owner of the launch," he said in frustration.
He gets a monthly salary of Tk7,000, which barely covers his own living cost. "We sometimes rent our sleeping cabin (staff cabin) to passengers and send the money home. But now we cannot do that as launch services have been shut down. During last year's lockdown, I got some relief rice, but this time I did not get anything. If the lockdown continues, my family is going to starve," he said.
Sabuj said, "We had 30 people on the staff on our launch but now we have 15 only. As launch movements are suspended, the remaining 15 staff members are on leave."
At Sadarghat on Saturday, it was seen that all the ticket counters were shut. Rows of launches were tied to the pontoon, from one end to the other. Some launches were anchored across the river.
Adventure-11 launch driver Kamal Uddin said, "Ramadan is the season for passengers to travel by launch. How will the owner pay us if the launch service is closed! The lockdown was imposed even before we overcame last year's miseries."
Bangladesh Shipping Workers Federation (BSWF) President Shah Alam told The Business Standard that the water transport workers worked hard during the corona period. "But there is no evaluation of their work. We have been demanding food allowance for shipping workers for a long time. The government also promised to give this allowance to the workers, but no initiative has been taken yet," he said.
About 5,000 passenger vessels
According to BSWF, there are around 5,000 passenger boats in the country.
Shah Alam said there are more than 50,000 passenger launch workers across the country. Now the workers do not get any salary as launches remain inactive.
"The owners pay only a nominal amount of money for food, and workers are living hand to mouth on that little allowance," he said, adding, "I think launch and passenger boat services can be resumed now by maintaining social distance."
BSWF General Secretary Chowdhury Ashiqul Alam said, "The workers are in misery. The owners have sent many workers home. It is not clear whether their salaries will be paid or not. The sufferings of the shipping workers are beyond description."
Ashiqul said the workers were given food during last year's lockdown by the Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWTA). This time, they are yet to receive any help. The workers somehow managed last year's crisis, but it is not possible to say what is going to happen this year.
"Owners pay from their income. How will they pay if they do not have any income at all? Shopping centres are being opened and now the time has come to resume launch services," he observed.
On condition of anonymity, a launch worker said, "The launch owners have sent about half of all the workers on unpaid leave. Those who have been sent back home are having a hard time. The workers are counting the hours to a resumption of launch services."
Liton Byapari, a labourer at Sadarghat, said, "I have been working for 10 years carrying the luggage of launch passengers. But the pandemic came and turned everything upside down. There is no work at the ghat and so I started pulling rickshaws."
"But I can't do that because of the police," he continued. "Even today, they seized my rickshaw for two hours. It is already afternoon now, but I have not been able to collect the owner's rent. Tk5,000 goes for the house rent at the end of the month. How will I manage family expenses?"
To stem the further spread of coronavirus, the government has imposed restrictions in various areas, including public transport. The 'all-out lockdown' began on 5 April and will continue till 28 April. Launch services have been closed across the country since the lockdown began. It will remain closed until further notice from the government.