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No room to cut: Rising inflation traps Bangladesh climate migrants

Construction worker Moina Begum (in gold clothing), sit with other day labourers waiting unsuccessfully for work near the Mirpur bridge in Dhaka, Bangladesh, August 16, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Mosabber Hossain

Construction worker Moina Begum (in gold clothing), sit with other day labourers waiting unsuccessfully for work near the Mirpur bridge in Dhaka, Bangladesh, August 16, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Mosabber Hossain

What’s the context?

As fuel prices and the cost of living soar, Bangladesh's poorest warn "I can't survive".

  • August fuel price boost and other inflation slows economy
  • Poor hit by double burden of higher costs, falling incomes
  • Families displaced by climate impacts face particular burden

By Mosabber Hossain and Md. Tahmid Zami

DHAKA - When Abul Kashem moved to Dhaka two years ago, after the roiling Jamuna River eroded away his home and farm in northern Bangladesh, the work he found helping grocery buyers carry their wares paid just enough to feed his family and pay his rent.

But with the government increasing fuel prices 50% in August, inflation on the rise and the economy slowing, getting by is now much harder, especially for the most vulnerable, including the capital's legions of migrants forced from their rural homes by climate change impacts.

Kashem says fewer people can now afford to pay for his services, and those that do are paying less, which means his income, once 1,000 to 1,200 taka ($10-12) a day, has more than halved, even as his own rent and grocery bills have risen.

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As a result, his family has had to cut back on meals, and last month were forced to find new lodging 20 kilometres (12 miles) from his job.

Under the weight of so many losses, "I can't survive," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The rising cost of living is taking a heavy toll on the world's poorest and most vulnerable, including many already struggling to survive after climate change-fuelled disasters have claimed their homes and land.

Bangladesh's inflation rate is now about 7.5%, according to the country's central bank, after the government dramatically boosted fuel prices in the face of rising global fossil fuel costs, in part as a result of the Ukraine conflict.

The unprecedented hike jolted the economy, sending prices of food and other commodities surging even as daily electricity outages slowed productivity.

That has crippled industries and growth, Rizwan Rahman, president of the Dhaka Chamber of Commerce and Industry, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview.

Workers are particularly feeling the pinch.

Arzina Begum, 50, who works in a garment factory in Hemayetpur, west of Dhaka, and lives in a damp little rented room, said her salary of 15,000 taka a month no longer is enough to support herself and her son.

"The way prices are going up, it is getting really tough to survive on the wages," she said. "My little boy of 15 had to join a workshop to earn some extra cash to our meagre income".

Taslima Akhtar Beauty, a leader of Garment Workers Rights Movement, said salaries need to rise to 20,000 or 25,000 taka a month for families to make ends meet - something there is so far little sign will happen.

Hazrat Ali, another worker who lives near Begum and earns 9,000 taka a month, said his family's food security is a growing worry.

"If prices keep soaring like this, wage gains can be eroded quite fast. We need regular rations of food items like rice, pulses, and oil," he said.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has publicly noted how ordinary people are bearing the brunt of rising prices and promised measures by the government to ease the burden.

The government, for instance, has been selling essential food items to the public at subsidised prices - but the subsidies are not reaching all who need them, with many still having to cut back on consumption, analysts say.

Bangladesh's planning minister, M.A. Mannan, said efforts to help struggling climate migrants and other families hit by flooding this year were being planned, ranging from food assistance to cash help, but "the global situation is affecting the economy of Bangladesh".

No work, less pay

For a growing share of Bangladesh's labourers, finding any work at all is a challenge as the economy slows.

Under the Mirpur bridge in Dhaka, groups of construction workers gather each morning at 6 a.m., carrying their tools, to hammer out work deals with construction supervisors.

Usually by 8 a.m. the crowd has dispersed, with labourers disappearing off to jobs. But in recent weeks many have found no work and had to return home empty-handed.

Prices for imported construction materials are soaring as inflation bites, slowing building projects, said Shafiqul Haque Talukder, president of the Bangladesh Association of Construction Industries.

"For this reason, workers are also suffering," he said.

Rahim Mia, 50, who came to Dhaka after Cyclone Bulbul destroyed his home in Khulna, said he had been looking for work for eight days in a row without luck, which was unusual.

"A month ago the construction owners would ask us to work for 1,200 taka ($12) a day but now the picture has changed. Some are offering 600-700 taka ($6-7) which is so disappointing," he said.

Construction worker Rahim Mia (center, with white beard) sits with other day labourers waiting for work near the Mirpur bridge in Dhaka, Bangladesh, August 16, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Mosabber Hossain

Construction worker Rahim Mia (center, with white beard) sits with other day labourers waiting for work near the Mirpur bridge in Dhaka, Bangladesh, August 16, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Mosabber Hossain

Construction worker Rahim Mia (center, with white beard) sits with other day labourers waiting for work near the Mirpur bridge in Dhaka, Bangladesh, August 16, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Mosabber Hossain

Moina Begum, another labourer waiting under the bridge, said she also had not found work in five days.

"The price of food and necessities is increasing. Only our wage rate is decreasing," she said.

Selim Raihan, an economics professor at the University of Dhaka and executive director of the South Asian Network on Economic Modeling, said the changes were a significant new threat to people already very vulnerable.

"Poor people are already in danger. A large population is now at risk of becoming extremely poor," he said.

The new pressures are leading families to cut back on education, healthcare, transport and other important spending, he said.

As their real wages fall, the government needs to work with employers to ensure workers can afford basic rations, Raihan said.

Protests

In some parts of Bangladesh, rising and increasingly unaffordable prices are leading to protests.

In the lush tea fields of eastern Bangladesh, the minimum wage for tea workers was set by the government in 2021 at 120 taka ($1.20) a day, leaving them among the lowest-paid workers in the country.

In the second week of August, with fuel and food prices soaring, around 150,000 tea workers launched an indefinite strike, demanding a new daily wage of 300 taka.

"We live in less-than-human conditions without proper medical care, housing and education," worker Prakash Bauri said in an interview, as he choked back tears.

In response to the protests, Bangladesh's prime minister announced a new 170 taka daily wage for tea workers - less than what was demanded but enough to at least temporarily suspend the strikes.

Janaklal Deswara, a local clerk whose family has worked in the tea fields for more than 150 years, said workers hope for another wage boost by the end of the year.

Other workers have little expectation for improvements.

Shanti Dash, who works as a household maid, lives in a tiny room in Dhaka's Kallyanpur slum with her husband and three children, after flooding and intruding saltwater destroyed their rural home and fields.

Shanti Dash, a house maid who has been losing her work, stands near closed shops in the Kallyanpur slum in Dhaka, Bangladesh, August 16, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Mosabber Hossain

Shanti Dash, a house maid who has been losing her work, stands near closed shops in the Kallyanpur slum in Dhaka, Bangladesh, August 16, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Mosabber Hossain

Shanti Dash, a house maid who has been losing her work, stands near closed shops in the Kallyanpur slum in Dhaka, Bangladesh, August 16, 2022. Thomson Reuters Foundation/Mosabber Hossain

Since food and fuel prices began rising, she has lost work in two of the homes where she cleaned, while her husband, a cobbler, has seen jobs dry up as well.

The loss of their already meager income means they have had to take their children out of school and buy only vegetables left over in the market at day's end. They are now looking for an even cheaper room to rent, she said.

"People are cutting down on home maids," lamented Dash, who said she was devastated by the loss of their children's schooling.

Slightly wealthier residents also are feeling the pinch.

S.M. Mahmudul Hasan, who owns and rents 10 rooms in Korai slum, said four of his tenants have now told him they can't afford to stay any longer.

And Shamsul Alam, 32, who works as a helper on a bus shuttling passengers into Dhaka, said he now has to haggle more than usual to extract the fare from some riders.

"The bus fare has gone up which is not my decision," he told one elderly passenger. "Forget about the fares you have been used to."


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Cost of living
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