A GOLDEN OPPORTUNITY
Jute has made an impressive comeback. Now it needs government support to restore its golden past.
It is a Friday, and thus, the usual hat-bazar (market) is not in full swing. Yet a few farmers have gathered at the Tekerhut jute market on the bank of river Kumar, Madaripur. We excitedly enter the market. Hair-raising pictures, news and a number of stories – true and false- portray jute farmers as miserable, ragged beings with stooped shoulders and shrouded eyes. I have been on the lookout for one who can speak to me about his experiences as a jute farmer.
The bazaar is more or less empty. Buyers, both from the private and public sectors, are lazily preparing raw jute for sale. After a couple of hours of roaming around the market, I meet Selim Miah, a jute farmer. He doesn’t look like any of the images I have seen in the papers. Of standard height and in his forties, he looks quite robust, effortlessly carrying a huge bundle of raw jute, a sign of where the industry can be going.
Bangladesh is highly dependent on the international market to sell its jute products. The government came up with a remarkable law in 2010 – the “Mandatory Packaging Act 2010”. The law stipulates the use of jute in wrapping six essential products, thus significantly hiking up the demand. However in the absence of proper monitoring, traders continue to use polythene bags instead of jute bags in packaging their products. It’s only because of the slow pace of the domestic industry in the use of jute that the industry is highly dependent on exports; at present only three-fourths of the domestically produced jute is exported.
In March, the Department of Jute under the Textile and Jute Ministry started a drive to force the millers and the traders to use jute sacks domestically. The state minister for the Ministry of Textiles and Jute however has said that the government is taking a hard line to compel the millers and traders to use jute sacks. The pace of motivational campaigns remains stagnant and nothing has changed in the last four years after the law came into light.
Humayun Khaled, chairman of the Bangladesh Jute Mills Corporation (BJMC) has said that the drive has to be strategic. “The Government should run the campaign quickly to get maximum results,” he says. He also stresses that if the law is implemented properly, more than 50 per cent of jute products would be consumed locally. He adds that reopening closed mills would not be advisable as excess supply in an already floundering market could create further problems.
The law, if made effective, can bring back the golden days of the golden fibre. But the jute industry is in urgent need of proper monitoring from the trading to the production sector and finally, the exporting world.
“Mandatory Packaging Act 2010” can bring back the golden days of jute. Photo: Prabir Das
Still left in the Cold
Selim is waiting outside a private purchase centre to collect his dues. He is worried. This year the price list decided by the government was surprisingly low. “Our profit margin is very low,” says Selim sadly. Moreover, the abnormal weather conditions lead to a water supply crisis across the jute cultivation areas of the country. This mostly affects small farmers who fail to meet the desired production. Because of the dry climate, jute farmers have to irrigate the dry lands, drastically raising production costs. With despair and hopelessness hanging over their heads, jute farmers have despondently termed 2014 as “a year of dry months and bare pockets.” Many of the farmers have not been able to sell even the raw jute since the price offered by the government was extremely low. As Selim puts it, “The small traders were also quoting very low prices.” Selim fears drastic losses this year.
During the retting (soaking the jute in water to soften the fibres) time, in search of water, Selim Miah and his three children carries bundles of jute and walk a long way. River Kumar is far away from his home. The road to the river is not suitable for the movement of any vehicle. Another farmer, Mintu Sarkar, accompanies Selim. “It is not an easy task. We had to walk since we cannot afford a van to carry our jute to the river.” He adds that it might be easy to write and read about the difficulties faced by jute farmers but their reality is much more difficult than meets the eye.
Along with the farmer the jute industry too is riding a parallel storm. Photo: Prabir Das
After the revival of the jute industry in 2009, the government has been buying jute from traders on credit as the mills were not able to pay immediate cash for the procurements. Muhammed Tipu, the owner of a jute storehouse informs us that during the golden period in the sixties and early seventies, the government would provide money to public purchase centres to directly buy jute from the farmers. “But now the farmers sell to the middleman at a low price,” says Tipu.
Humayun Khaled, Chairman of BJMC. Photo: Prabir Das
Along with the farmers, the jute industry too is riding a parallel storm. We arrive at the Khulna Khalishpur Jute Mills at around 6:30 in the morning. Surprisingly way before we enter the main industrial area, we hear a faint rhythmic sound wafting up towards us. The factory has already begun its day’s work. The red-bricked buildings are bustling with production. The closer we get to the factory, the louder the sound grows. Giant machines are running busily, refining and polishing the raw jute. You’d think that the jute industry is undergoing a boost in its production and profits by the look of the activities inside the mills. However, the reality of the industry is very different.
At the beginning of this year, 20 jute mills have been shut down due to a depressed international market. But the mill we are in gives a different picture than statistics would have us believe. All the looms are running rhythmically and workers are rushing with jute from one machine to the other. When the workers realise we are journalists and here to interview them, a young man named Manik approaches us, asking shyly, “Do you think it would help us if you write about us?” This is a frequent question that we face during our four-day long journey from Khulna to Madaripur and Gopalganj. We don’t have the answer.
One might think raw jute, yarn and sacks are the main products produced in the country, however a number of dedicated private mills are working hard to produce diversified jute items. And they are targeting to break the global jute shopping bag market, where India is a leading actor. Janata Jute Mills Ltd is one of the largest manufacturer and exporters filling the growing demand for shopping bags in the international market. Mahmudul Huq, deputy managing director of Janta Jute Mills believes that gradually the international market is changing its focus from plastic to environment friendly jute shopping bags. “And of course the demand is growing every day.”
In the last eighteen years Janata Jute Mills has achieved many milestones and is now focusing on making ‘green’ shopping bags, that is, made of jute. Huq firmly believes that the public sector can be a profitable one if it focuses on doing business the way the private sector does it. “Before the political unrest in the Middle East, it was hard to find out a single unsuccessful business initiative in the private sector.” He further adds, “It is true that the ongoing conflict and tension in Syria, Sudan and Thailand have marked a deep tension in the export sector. But proper implementation of the packaging act can change the scenario.” During the last fiscal year, two mills owned by Huq exported 47,000 tonnes of yarn, processed fibre, woven and non woven products that earned Tk 400 crore in foreign currency.
Storage rooms in the mills are stocked with ready to sell products. Photo: Prabir Das
From the Brink
The public sector has more problems than we had assumed. Manik shows sacks of jute piled up in the factory. Storage rooms in the mill are stocked with ready to sell products. We learn that the fall of international exports is seriously hampering the jute industry. Due to the fall in exports, the workers are concerned about their jobs and bogged down by insecurity. Robiul Hossain, a middle-aged machine operator at Khalishpur Jute Mill, doesn’t know about the depression in the international market but he fears that the jute mills might shut down soon. During the last Ramadan, the workers only got a bonus as mill authorities couldn’t pay their salaries on time. ‘No work, no pay’ – that was the deal between the workers and the government. “We are afraid of being jobless again,” says Hossain.
He is worried about his children and family. He lives on the other side of river Bhoirob. Every day he rides a cycle to work. Robiul, like thousands of workers, lived in a government-allotted workers’ residence before. “But when the factory reopened the government didn’t allot places for us to live in.” The living cost is rising but the necessary facilities that they need to survive are absent.
Before Khalishpur Jute Mills began its operation, there was an unspoken agreement that as the workers would be doing their job under the ‘no work, no pay’ rule, the factory would perform well to garner the highest income for its workers. Thus, the government need not provide workers with other facilities offered to employees of other factories. Despite such ‘savings’ the factory is not making the profits that it was supposed to.
While the officials at Khalishpur Jute Mills blame the inefficiency of the workers in terms of working hours and the pointless unrest carried out by labour unions, workers claim that the production is not at its maximum because of corrupt and inept management.
During the Ramadan last year, a messy situation was created due to workers’ protests and labour unrest, claims GAM Mahbubur Rashid Zulfiqar, administration manager of Khalishpur Jute Mills. “If the workers don’t do their job honestly the situation is not going to change,” he claims.
The rise of the jute industry depends on the international market, and new and attractive jute made products, apart from the reformation of factory management and the proper implementation of the Mandatory Packaging Act, 2010.
There are many allegations against the government, owners and even the workers of the jute industry. If we only take Khalishpur Jute Mills as an example, we can see that the workers are not happy with the treatment that they are receiving from the government. The pile up of jute products waiting in storage is creating tension and insecurity. Moreover, the facilities provided to them are not enough to support their family. Manik’s family consists of four people. He gets a wage of Tk 1800 per week. “Do you think anyone could feel any kind of motivation after being paid such poor wages?” he asks.
We spoke to 20 jute mill workers and all of them had some complaint or the other with the current state of affairs. The production rate is decreasing everyday and workers are losing their jobs at a rapid pace. The mill officers, however, are permanent employees and thus are provided with all the facilities from the government. Workers complain that even though they work three times as hard as the officers, it’s the officers who enjoy all the facilities. “We don’t have any place where the workers and their families can live. We are surviving in misery. But the officers are reaping all the benefits, starting from an apartment provided by the government to good salaries,” says Manik.
About thirty million people are directly or indirectly involved with the jute industry in the country. At the moment the biggest challenge is to keep up the level of employment that we have produced for a second time after the jute sector revitalized in 2009. Jute has all the possibilities to contribute to our economy and it can only be revived if the government is proactive and gradually enforces the Mandatory Packaging Act, 2010.
NOVEMBER 14, 2014