Most of these stone extractors are underage.
During a recent visit, this correspondent witnessed children aged between 8 and 16 years collecting stones from the riverside as well as extracting stones from the riverbed by diving into the water without any gear.
Most children were seen working with their families – the elders showing the tricks of the trade to the young ones.
Siyam, a 14-year-old boy, was working like others when this correspondent met him near the Piyan River, filling up his boat with stones. Whenever he paused to catch a breath, the elderly man he was working with snapped at him to get back to work.
Despite the strict supervision, Siyam managed to chat with this correspondent.
Asked why he was doing a job that was unfit and too hazardous for him, he said because he had no choice.
Also Read- Childhood crushed under weight of stones
“My family took a loan of Tk12,000 from a stone quarry owner for my father's treatment a month ago. Now I must keep working for the owner until the debt is paid in full,” he explained.
A hefty portion of whatever he earns every day for nearly 10 hours is paid to the stone quarry owner. “I am able to take Tk60-80 home,” he said.
During another visit to Bisanakandi area in Sylhet, this correspondent met Md Nasim.
Nasim has been working at a stone quarry all his life, and now he has introduced his children to his profession.
“I have to put my 11-year-old daughter to work beside me because I owe Tk10,000 to the quarry owner,” he said. “I took the loan to treat my ill son.”
None of these workers seem to consider any other options to earn their living.
“That is because this is the only profession that people living in this region [Jaflong, Bisankandi, Bholaganj – the stone quarry areas] have known for years. There are no other livelihood options available here,” said Assraf Seddiky, assistant professor at the department of public administration in Shahjalal University of Science and Technology.
Children are particularly preferred for this work because they are more agile and can collect more stones than adults.
Assraf conducted a study on the stone collectors and quarry workers in Bholaganj and Bisanakandi in 2014, the findings of which were published in the Journal of Emerging Trends in Educational Research and Policy Studies.
The visits were organised by Bangladesh Shishu Adhikar Forum and funded by international child welfare agency Terre des Hommes.
A form of modern slavery
Being extremely poor and having no alternative work opportunities, residents of this region often get exploited by the local influentials who have connections with both political leaders and stone quarry owners.
“There is a group of influentials who lend money to these workers, and to pay off that loan they have to keep working for the quarries,” Assraf said.
On top of that, the workers have to pay tolls to the same group of brokers in order to get work.
Assraf's study found that 52.5% of the workers pay tolls to the local influentials so they can continue working.
Paying the tolls also saves the workers from getting arrested when police raid the riversides, as the brokers alert them beforehand.
In some cases, the brokers even pay a hefty sum of money to the families so they will give up their children for the entire winter to collect stones.
Read More- Workers dogged by dust and disease
Bound by their parents' debt, the children have no way of escaping a job that is severely hazardous to their health.
Added to that is the less-than-acceptable treatment on the job: Assraf's study found that nearly 70.84% workers said they were badly treated by the stone quarry owners or had bad relations with them.
“Unless alternative livelihood options are introduced in this region, it is very difficult to change this situation,” Assraf told the Dhaka Tribune.
When contacted, Akhter Mitra, a quarry owner in Jaflong, refuted the allegations of mistreating workers. “We often give our workers money in advance to help them. We never treat them in an inhumane way.”
Abdul Aziz, secretary of the Stone Quarry Owners' Association in Jaflong, denied any possibility of a slavery system at the quarries. “Parents put their children to work here voluntarily.”
Abdul Hakim Chowdhury, chairman of Gowainghat Upazila Parishad where Jaflong is located, said the number of stone collectors are smaller now because of the government ban on collecting stones.
“People have started working in tea estates now,” he said. “The situation is changing, but it will take some more time.”