Rising inflation traps climate migrants from Bangladesh

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Reuters file photo
A rickshaw looms as it drives past graffiti in Dhaka on September 19.

DHAKA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) — When Abul Kashem moved to Dhaka two years ago after the Jamuna River eroded his home and farm in northern Bangladesh, the work he found helping buyers of groceries to carry their goods paid just enough to feed his family and pay his rent.

But with the government raising fuel prices by 50% in August, rising inflation and a slowing economy, coping is now much harder, especially for the most vulnerable, including including the capital’s legions of migrants driven from their rural homes by the impacts of climate change.

Kashem says fewer people can now afford to pay for his services, and those who do pay less, meaning his income, once 1,000-1,200 taka ($10-12) per day, has more than halved, even though her own rent and grocery bills have gone up.

As a result, her family had to cut back on their meals and were forced to find new accommodation 20 kilometers from work in August.

Under the weight of so much loss, “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, many of whom are already struggling to survive after disasters caused by climate change swept away their homes and lands.

Bangladesh’s inflation rate is now around 7.5%, according to the country’s central bank, after the government dramatically raised fuel prices in the face of rising global fossil fuel costs, in part due of the conflict in Ukraine.

The unprecedented rise jolted the economy, pushing up the prices of food and other staples even as daily power outages slowed productivity.

It 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 affected.

Arzina Begum, 50, who works at a garment factory in Hemayetpur, west of Dhaka, and lives in a small rented wet room, said her monthly salary of 15,000 taka was no longer enough to support her needs and those of her son.

“With the way prices are going up, it’s getting really hard to survive on wages,” she said. “My 15-year-old had to join a workshop to add some extra money to our meager income.”

Taslima Akhtar Beauty, a leader of the Garment Workers Rights Movement, said salaries needed to rise to 20,000 or 25,000 taka a month so families could make ends meet – something that so far has hardly sign of happening.

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

“If prices keep going up like this, wage gains can be eroded quite quickly. We need regular rations of foodstuffs 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 government action to ease the burden.

The government, for example, has sold essential food items to the public at subsidized prices – but the subsidies are not reaching everyone who needs them, and many have yet to reduce their consumption, analysts say.

Bangladesh’s planning minister, MA Mannan, said efforts to help struggling climate migrants and other families affected by floods this year were planned, ranging from food aid to cash assistance, but “the world situation affects the economy of Bangladesh”.

No job, less pay

For a growing share of workers in Bangladesh, finding work is a challenge as the economy slows.

Under the Mirpur Bridge in Dhaka, groups of construction workers gather every morning at 6 a.m., carrying their tools, to make labor contracts with construction supervisors.

Usually by 8 a.m. the crowds have dispersed, with workers disappearing on the job. But in recent weeks, many have not found work and have had to return home empty-handed.

Prices of imported construction materials are skyrocketing as inflation bites, slowing construction projects, said Shafiqul Haque Talukder, chairman of the Bangladesh Construction Industries Association.

“Because of this, 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 straight days without success, which was unusual.

“A month ago, the building owners asked us to work for 1,200 taka ($12) a day, but now the situation has changed. Some are offering 600-700 taka ($6-7), which is so disappointing,” he said.

Moina Begum, another laborer who waited below decks, said she had also not found work for five days.

“The price of food and basic necessities is rising. Only our wage rate goes down,” she said.

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

“The poor are already at risk. Much of the population is now at risk of becoming extremely poor,” he said.

The new pressures are pushing families to cut spending on education, health, transportation and other big expenses, he said.

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

Protests

In parts of Bangladesh, rising and increasingly unaffordable prices are sparking protests.

In the lush tea fields of eastern Bangladesh, the minimum wage for tea workers has been set by the government in 2021 at 120 taka ($1.20) per day, putting them among the worst workers paid from the country.

In the second week of August, as fuel and food prices soared, around 150,000 tea workers went on 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, the Prime Minister of Bangladesh announced a new daily wage of 170 taka for tea workers – less than demanded but enough to at least temporarily suspend strikes.

Janaklal Deswara, a local employee whose family has worked in the tea fields for more than 150 years, said workers were hoping for a further pay rise by the end of the year.

Other workers expect little improvement.

Shanti Dash, who works as a cleaner, lives in a small room in Dhaka’s Kalyanpur slum with her husband and three children, after floods and saltwater intrusion destroyed their rural home and fields.

Since food and fuel prices started to rise, she has lost work at two of the houses where she cleaned, while her husband, a cobbler, has also seen jobs dry up.

The loss of their already meager income forces them to take their children out of school and buy only the vegetables that remain in the market at the end of the day. They are now looking for an even cheaper room to rent, she said.

“People are reducing the number of servants,” lamented Dash, who said she was devastated by the loss of their children’s schooling.

Slightly wealthier residents also feel the pinch.

SM Mahmudul Hasan, who owns and rents 10 rooms in the Korai slum, said four of his tenants have now told him they can no longer afford to stay.

And Shamsul Alam, 32, who works as an assistant on a bus ferrying passengers to Dhaka, said he now had to haggle more than usual to extract the fare from some passengers.

“The bus fare has gone up, which is not my decision,” he told an elderly passenger. “Forget the fares you’ve been used to.”

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