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Owners, workers in standoff as cargo vessel strike threatens economy

  • Published at 10:28 pm October 20th, 2020
Water transport strike
File photo: Owners, workers in standoff as cargo vessel strike threatens economy UNB

Owners’ association leaders say it is impossible to meet workers’ demands

Thousands of cargo vessels carrying millions of tons of various goods are lying idle in different jetties of the country with water transport workers observing an indefinite countrywide strike to press home their 11-point demand.

The strike, enforced by the Bangladesh Water Transport Workers' Federation (BWTWF), began at 12:01am on Tuesday.

The demands include payment of salaries of the water transport workers as per the gazette announced in 2016, food allowance, health care equipment, provision of appointment letters, issuing identity cards and service books to workers, ensuring their social security, compensation of Tk10 lakh for those killed in workplace accidents and effective measures to stop extortion on the waterways.

Md Shah Alam, president of the federation, told Dhaka Tribune the owners had committed themselves to implement the food allowance by March this year after a meeting on November 27 last year. 

“When our demands went unheeded, we were compelled to go on a nationwide strike,” he added. 

'Impossible demands'

However, Bangladesh Cargo Vessel Owners’ Association (BCVOA) General Secretary Nurul Haque said: “Their [the BWTWF’s] demand for food allowance is totally illegal as the current wage gazette will stay in force until June 2021.”

He added that reduced income due to the Covid-19 pandemic had also made it impossible for owners to provide any food allowance.

The owners’ association general secretary made the remarks during a press conference at the association office in Dhaka on Tuesday evening.

Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority (BIWYA) Chairman Commodore Golam Sadeq told Dhaka Tribune: “We sat with the leaders of the owners’ association and workers’ federation on Monday. During the discussions, some of the workers’ demands, like the demand for food allowance, seemed logical.

“However, the owners are completely unwilling to accede to the demands,” he added.

Owners’ Association General Secretary Nurul Haque said the owners themselves would call a strike if the government tried to force them to give in to the workers’ demands.

‘Giant groups paying food allowances’

Workers’ Federation President Md Shah Alam pointed out that many owners around the world were bearing the cost of feeding their employees.

“Some giant groups have decided to pay Tk2,000 per month as food allowance for vessel workers. These groups include City Group, Bashundhara Group, Meghna Group and Abul Khair Group,” Shah Alam added.

He added that as many as 20,000 vessel workers were currently on strike.

Iqbal Hossain, president of the owners’ association, said: “Such giant groups operate fewer than 300 vessels, and all these vessels are unregistered so they do not have to follow the schedule.”   

In response to a query, he said around 2,500 vessel’s owners were members of the association, and they operated a total of around 5,000 cargo vessels.

Congestion at port and price hike

The transport of goods from Chittagong to all over the country has been disrupted due to the strike.

The unloading operations from mother vessels anchored at the outer anchorage of Chittagong port have been suspended since the strike was enforced.

Water Transport Cell (WTC) Joint Secretary Ataul Kabir Ranju told Dhaka Tribune that 709 vessels laden with around a million tons of goods such as wheat, sugar, clinker, tiles, and ceramic raw materials had been stranded at different jetties across the country due to the strike.

WTC coordinates the movement of individually owned lighter ships in Chittagong and nearby areas.

Businesspersons fear that they will be in trouble if the workers continue their strike

They said the cost of doing business might go up due to the disruption in the unloading of consumer goods and raw materials.  

"The port will face container and vessel congestion and the economy will have to bear the brunt if the deadlock continues," said Mahbub Chowdhury, vice president of Chittagong Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and Industry.

Across the country

In Narayanganj, workers of goods-carrying water transports also went on work abstention to realize their demands.

They said that despite repeated assurances from the government and other stakeholders, their demands were yet to be met. 

The workers said they worked round the clock but the wages they were given were hardly enough to maintain their families. Moreover, the owners did not pay the wages on time.

Although the government and the owners had assured that food allowance would be given to the workers, it was yet to be done, they said.

In Khulna, water transport workers staged demonstrations and brought out a procession in support of their strike on Tuesday morning.

Organizing Secretary of Khulna unit Bangladesh Water Transport Workers' Federation Delwar Hossain said the workers led by him marched with a procession in the city's BIWTA Ghat area around 10am to press home their demands

The same situation was seen in Barisal, with vessel workers abstaining from work.  

Sheikh Abul Hashem, secretary of the Barisal unit BWTWF, said water transport owners had failed to implement the tri-party contract signed in 2016 between owners, government and water transport workers.

Saidur Rahman Rintu, vice president of Bangladesh Launch Owners Association, said passenger launches were operating on various routes as they were out of the purview of the strike. 

In another development, Chittagong Chamber of Commerce and Industry (CCCI) President Mahbubul Alam on Tuesday wrote to Minister of State for Labour and Employment Begum Monnujan Sufian, asking her to take necessary steps to resolve the strike.

“Apart from disrupting the transportation of raw materials and goods, the strike will lead to container and vessel congestion at the port. The import-export costs of goods will shoot up due to the overstay and the increase of turnaround time of the vessels,” he said.

As a result, businesspersons would incur losses and consumers would have to purchase essential commodities at increased prices, he added.

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