Around 50 lakh people engaged in the transportation sector have been left to confront another battle – against hardship – alongside the Covid-19 pandemic.
Drivers, helpers, workshop mechanics – the majority of whom are daily wage earners – are now experiencing untold misery as they are unemployed during the ongoing shutdown. They cannot stand in a queue for relief and neither their employers nor leaders have offered helping hands.
The further extension of the government-announced general holidays to April 25 has exacerbated their sufferings.
There is some relief for transportation company owners who received a six-month extension to repay bank loans they had taken to buy vehicles. They have also secured a huge interest benefit – over 3 percentage points – due to the capping of the lending rate at 9 percent.
Workers say they are now struggling to feed their families plus pay rent and the tuition of their children. Extra expenses during Ramadan will only add to their worries.
Mashiur Rahman Ranga, president of the Bangladesh Road Transport Owners' Association, told The Business Standard, "We have asked transportation company owners to pay Tk2,000 for each of their drivers and Tk1,000 for each of their helpers, on an interim basis, during this crisis."
This correspondent talked to several transportation company owners and workers to learn about their condition.
A bus owner on the Mohammadpur-Jatrabari route said, "My family lives on a daily income that comes from a bus I bought with all of my savings. Now, I am unable to make ends meet as I have no other source of income. I can neither ask for the government relief nor have I received any financial help from others."
Shahid Mia, who owns two buses with a bank loan, said, "From my daily income, I meet my family expenses, repay instalments of a bank loan and give salaries to my bus staff. I have no income during this transportation shutdown.
"I have some relief for six months as I do not have to repay my loan for now. However, once this privilege goes, how will I repay the loan? I am very worried about the future."
Riazul, a transportation sector worker, said, "I earn daily by driving a human hauler on the Mohammadpur-Mirpur route. Now, I have no work and no pay. If I were in a permanent job, the situation would have been different."
Another worker named Shamim said, "Our unions take donations daily in the name of workers' welfare. However, we are not getting any help from them during this crisis. Our leaders cannot even be contacted by phone."
Many transportation sector workers, paid monthly, are in trouble as they are now out of work.
Rafiqul Islam, president of the Bangladesh Bus Companies' Association, told The Business Standard that many buses and minibuses usually transportation sector employees of corporate houses, garment factories or government offices.
"Transportation company owners employed a fixed number of drivers and helpers to provide this service. As per a clause in their contracts, the respective organisations will not pay any money as services remain shut during this current situation. So, the service providers will face problems to pay salaries to their drivers and helpers," he added.
Shajahan Khan, executive president of the Bangladesh Road Transport Workers' Federation, told The Business Standard that he has already instructed all the union leaders to help the workers from the union's welfare fund.
"At least 40 lakh workers and 10 lakh stakeholders in the transportation sector are in a big crisis. At present, our priority is to save our people by providing them with aid," he added.
Shajahan Khan also said, "I discussed the issue with the prime minister. She gave a directive to solve the issue contacting the deputy commissioners. I instructed our union leaders to communicate with them and provide a list of our workers to them so that they can provide the government's relief to the deserving workers."
Khandakar Enayetullah, secretary general of the Bangladesh Road Transport Owners' Association, claims that the transportation sector is incurring a loss of at least Tk500 crore a day.
He also said the workers suffer the most.
Enayetullah added the figure does not include the losses incurred from bank loans. He said the association will sit together and calculate the actual loss of the sector when the crisis is over.
He urged the government to oversee the loan issues in this sector. He also sought a stimulus package for the transport sector.
Economists say the government should identify the individuals and bring them under the relief net as early as possible. The government can also consider paying their wages through a payroll package.
Dr Zahid Hussain, former lead economist at the World Bank's Dhaka office, suggested bringing them under the social safety net.
"They should be provided with cash incentives instead of food support," he added.
"The government has announced a stimulus package for the export-oriented sector. A similar type of package can be drawn up for the transportation sector," Zahid said.
During the ongoing general holiday, the movement of all forms of public transportation remains halted. However, trucks, covered-vans and emergency service vehicles remain outside the purview of the transportation shutdown.
However, with no demand for carrying goods, a large number of trucks and covered-vans are now sitting idly. These vehicles are primarily used to ship the goods of different factories that are now closed.
Ridesharing services have become an important part of public transportation in major cities of the country.
According to data from January 2019, commuters took six million rides each month, on average, via ridesharing apps. Recent figures exceeded the six-million mark and reached 7.5 million rides per month, report industry experts.
However, more than five lakh drivers registered with ridesharing companies have become unemployed during the lockdown.
On March 23, the government declared general holidays from March 26 to April 4, aiming to prevent the transmission of the deadly coronavirus. Later it was extended until April 25.