The 48-hour countrywide strike enforced by the Bangladesh Road Transport Workers Federation (BRTWF) on Sunday and Monday last has once again demonstrated the power and influence the transport operators wield. Some of the ugly incidents including transport workers' forcible halting of ambulances and an auto-rickshaw reportedly led to the death of three infants on the way to hospital. Then the smearing of faces of drivers of different vehicles including private cars and the bodies of those vehicles with used engine oil created the impression that at least on the road 'dictatorship of the proletariat' was established temporarily.
Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels may have adopted the term coined by Joseph Weydemeyer with the intention of establishing the rule by the largest class -workers that is - so that there would be no class distinction at all. But on Sunday and Monday, the striking transport workers certainly gave a poor account of themselves by going beyond all norms of a strike. Even rickshaw-pullers and girl students were not spared of the indignity of lubricant smearing. The pictures carried in newspapers or by the electronic media may have produced a loathing of all those involved in the act.
However, deep down the message there is something ironical of which not even the actors themselves are aware. That the transport workers are playing at the hands of powerful quarters is completely missing. Who they are humiliating by painting their faces with used lubricant? The victims belong to their class. They are as much workers as those in whose hands they suffer. Workers the world over are pitted against overwhelming odds mainly for two reasons - artificial intelligence-driven industrial automation and aggressive market economy. In Bangladesh, they find themselves more painfully at the receiving end. If the latest news is any guide, the wage board-finalised minimum entry-level wage is fixed at Tk 8,000 for garments workers against their demand for Tk 16,000. Studies by different organisations have found that wage below Tk 20,000 proves insufficient for a worker to live a bare minimum dignified life.
Now what about the transport workers' working conditions and atmosphere here? Surprisingly, in the 7-point or 8-point charter there is no demand for regularisation of the employment or reduction of duty time to eight hours. The question of training and retraining does not arise at all. They are worse off compared with the garments workers and still they do not know how to place their demands. A clique ruling over them eats the cream at the cost of their labour. Today, the transport workers have no fixed employment, they are just day labourers who operate public transports on lease on a daily basis. They have no duty hours and can be terminated at will. Their earning depends on as many trips they can make either way.
What has happened silently in the process is that transport workers have been reduced to mere slaves to the owners. Without their mercy and favour, their life is untenable. They have been forced to face the passengers without taking care of the many irregularities that have remained endemic in the sector. The nexus of the owners, a dishonest section of law enforcers and political godfathers has been so overpowering that it can pull the string from behind in order to use them for purposes hardly serving the wretched workers' interests. It gives them the false impression that they are powerful enough but actually they are acquiescing dolls in the hands of the nexus.
Had the transport workers been in control of their own affairs they would have raised their voice against the irregularities in the sector of which they are the prime victims. Without service rules and regular employment, the workers always have to seek favour either from their employers or the entrenched powerful clique. In a situation like this, they are unlikely to serve better. Neglected and abused, they now have to think of saving their skin. The legal provisions included providing for life term and death penalty cannot bring about discipline on the road when those in charge are so maltreated.
If the goal is to bring about road discipline, there is a need for breaking the unholy nexus first and then consider the transport service essential -so essential that its main players must enjoy at least the basic facilities of regular employment. Their duty hours, festival bonuses and other facilities should be well defined in order to make the job dignified enough. The daily exchange of filthy languages, rough and rude behaviours that generally mark the relations between passengers and conductors will minimise with streamlining their service and the operation of transports.
Shorn of their dignity, no employees can and should serve their customers or clients better. The transport sector is dominated by elements not famous for their honesty and transparency. They are all set to retain control of the sector by allowing the irregularities to continue. There is need for redefining the transport business where each stake-holder recognises the dignity of labour and values individuality of members of the public. Everyone has a role to play in making the system work smoothly. Development of a cosmopolitan culture depends on this and without such a culture, no city can claim to be civilised enough.
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