When Amzad Ali first came to Dhaka from Gobindaganj of Gaibandha district in 2012, he had brought what he calls his “two assets of that time” - a Nokia phone and his expertise with the tandoor.
Six years down the line, he has upgraded to a Chinese smartphone, but he still spends hours beside the cylindrical drum-like oven and brings out naan after naan – crisp exteriors and airy inside.
“I have long wanted to be a Kabab Karigor (Kebab chef) but the owner clearly doesn’t want to give me the chance,” said Ali with a sigh.
Decades ago, Ali started working at a restaurant in Gobindaganj as a cleaner at the age of 14, before graduating to a waiter after a few years. One morning when the restaurant owner brought a tandoor to attract an increasing number of afternoon snack-diners with naan and kebab, he was asked to be the 'naan karigor'.
“They were short-staffed then and by that time, I had attained considerable cooking skills, especially in dough making, so I got the chance.”
After working for four years, Ali opted to go to Dhaka as a relative said he “could earn a lot of money” there with his skill.
Ali now earns around Tk16,000, working for more than 13 hours a day, six days a week, and sometimes every day of the week. “I used to make Tk3,500 in Gobindaganj, but I was with my family there,” he said.
“I can barely manage to send Tk10,000 to my family in a month. This amount is nothing nowadays. If I could become a kebab karigor, I could have earned Tk10,000 more by getting a job in an upscale restaurant in Gulshan, but unfortunately I still haven't been able to gain experience with meat.”
A highly unregulated restaurant industry
Thousands of restaurant workers like Ali are living in the country with a life comprised of three things - long hours, low pay and the hope of climbling up a ‘severely unregulated’ employment ladder, guided only by the whims of restaurant owners.
According to Bangladesh Restaurant Owners Association (BROA), there are over 18 lakh restaurant workers working in over 20,000 restaurants across the country. Dhaka and Chattagram—two of the largest cities—hold over half of these workers.
About 70 percent of these restaurants are known as ‘Bhat er Hotel,’ meaning their menus mostly offer local rice, paratha and curries. To cater to the needs of evolving taste buds, a large number of these restaurants have also started an afternoon menu comprised of naan-kabab and grilled chicken.
The remaining 30 percent restaurants are fast-food shops, Chinese restaurants and upscale restaurants offering multi-cuisine.
Almost the entire restaurant industry in Bangladesh relies on workers who have gotten their restaurant skills — be it cooking, waiting jobs, cleaning or even managing the supply–chain —through an informal apprentice-mentor model.
There is no such thing as industry standards (or collective bargaining) in a business in which the majority of entities are independent entrepreneurs. Each restaurant is its own fiefdom, subject to the laws of the land, but operating in metaphorical and literal darkness, governed by the decree or benevolence of their owners.
This has made the whole industry a highly unregulated one, resulting in frequent abuse of workers' rights.
“Most of us started with cleaning dishes. We didn’t get paid for our work; we got food and most importantly - training,” said Khokon Mia, the main chef of Bakshibazaar’s Alifa Restaurant.
“I got my cooking training from several 'ustads' (mentors). They taught me how to skin and slice a chicken, how to cook fish curries and some ‘chora masala’ (secret spices) for Kacchi Biriyani. I needed to put in years of labour to learn that.”
According to Mia, many poor children work in a kitchen for free to learn or in the hope of being hired, and that no one works less than 12 hours a day.
“Child labour is not something that concerns anyone here. There is no such thing as weekends at the initial stage. Once you become a cook or a senior waiter, then you can think of getting a day off in a week.”
“The payment obviously is still low if you consider the long hours that we need to put in,” he said, adding that as the main chef, he gets Tk 35,000 per month.
No guarantee of worker’s right
Last year in May, the government set the minimum wage for workers of the hotel and restaurant sector at Tk3,710 as monthly gross pay from Tk1,750, which many experts concerned believe is “well below the standard for an industryas important as food.”
Rafiqul Islam, general secretary of Bangladesh Hotel Restaurant Sweetmeat Sramik Federation said, “Most of the workers in the restaurant industry don't even get the minimum wage. Go and see how many work in exchange for only food and training. This is an industry that is highly exploited by the owners.”
According to Islam, even workers in established and upscale restaurants are given a paltry salary. “If you ask a waiter at a Chinese restaurant about his/her salary, they will tell you that the owners ask them to live on tips.”
Even though the workers had long been demanding festival and overtime allowances, these provisions were not included in the last declared wage structure.
Anwar Hossain, Senior Vice President of BROA, agreed that the restaurant industry in Bangladesh is highly unregulated and workers' rights are not ensured.
“This has been going on for years. Young men with almost no education and skills come to our restaurants for work. We give them that and sometimes accommodation. They also got the most important thing – training.”
Hossain, who is the owner of Purnima café in Gulshan, said he doesn’t mind paying good money for skilled restaurant workers. “I have cooks in my restaurant with Tk40,000 salary and managers with Tk35,000. They work for fixed hours and get days-off.”
The problem however, said Hossain, is that most of the workers start with zero skill and experience and no businessman would want to pay for that unless “they put in long hours and hard labour.”
Faisal Mahmud is a journalist based in Dhaka