A hazardous profession

Following a visit to the Shutki Mahal of Cox’s Bazar, Sadiqur Rahman reveals how child workers at the dried fish processing yards, alongside adult workers, are increasingly affected by diseases due to unscrupulous practices of some shutki traders in the area

Photos by Sadiqur rahman

001Marzina (10) of Nazirtek, Cox’s Bazar never attended school in her life. She is one of six siblings, who lost their father several years ago due to illness related to dried fish (shutki) processing. The absence of the only earning member in the family, forced all members of the family, including her, to engage in income-generating activities.
Regrettably, some money-mongering shutki traders want the fish to remain moist so that they weigh more, indirectly affecting the health of workers. Also, the traders encourage the application of toxic pesticides on dried fish stocks to keep the product bacteria and insect-free, which further threatens the workers’ health.

Like Marzina, hundreds of local children, deprived of education and healthcare, their basic needs, are forced to engage in these hazardous sectors. Pushed by extreme poverty, those engaged in dried fish processing are susceptible to diseases like pneumonia, diarrhea, asthma, scabies, eczema and others, according to physicians. They say that some of these diseases can be fatal for children and adult workers alike at the shutki yards, if patients are not treated in time.

002Nazirtek is the largest shutki mahal of the country on the beach at the confluence of the Bay of Bengal near Cox’s Bazar airport. According to shutki mahal insiders, around 20,000 workers, mostly women and children, work in around 500 yards in the Nazirtek shutki mahal during the production season.
Insiders inform New Age Xtra that all the workers of shutki yards have to work from early morning (06:00am) till evening (9:00pm), or nearly 15 hours with a short break during lunch. Marzina shares, ‘The owner of the yard pays Tk 200 daily and provides complementary snacks (puffed rice, boiled gram or bread and tea) as lunch.’
The process of manufacturing dried fish generally starts around October in Nazirtek of Sadar upazila, Kutubjom and Sonadia in Maheshkhali upazila, Teknaf, Shamlapur, Sundaripara in Pekua upazila, St Martin’s Island and Baro Ghop in Kutubdia upazila. If the weather remains favourable for drying fish, the process continues till March of the following year.
Shutki yard worker Siraji Begum’s (45) husband Jainal Abedin, who also used to work in a shutki yard in Cox’s Bazar, died of liver disease six years ago. Siraji tells New Age Xtra, ‘Three of my children had to stop their primary education after their father’s death. My only son now drives an auto-rickshaw in Cox’s Bazar town and two daughters are engaged in shutki processing.’
003In a Bangladesh Shishu Adhikar Forum-terre des hommes Netherland supported trip to Cox’s Bazar, New Age Xtra also found that poor children at the Ghatibhanga Charpara of Maheshkhali are engaged in dried fish processing to earn an income to support their families.
Sakhina Begum, mother of three children, informs New Age Xtra that her children go to school once in three months when school authority pays stipend.  ‘Otherwise, they visit school when they have no work in the shutki yard,’ she says.
District primary education office sources inform that children from extremely poor families hardly seek admission to schools. Even if they do enroll, they can hardly continue their academic year due to work. According to the primary education office statistics, the current dropout rate of the district [grade 1 to 5] is 14.68 per cent.
004Siddiqur Rahman, the district primary education officer, observes that poor parents are more likely to engage their kids in earning rather than educating them. He says, ‘Cox’s Bazar is a tourist zone. Moreover, there are many export-oriented industries here, where there is always demand for cheap labour. Hence, the parents engage their children in such hard work rather than sending them to school.’
President of Nazirtek Shutki Traders Multipurpose Cooperative Society Shahadat Ullah shares that their business association always encourage child education. ‘But the impoverished Rohingya community, who dominates the workforce in the shutki mahal, care more about their daily bread than education,’ says Shahadat.  Shahadat’s statement could not be verified as the workers in the yard did not want to share any information or show any national identification cards to this correspondent.

005Additionally, hundreds of children along with elders are also facing serious health hazards at the shutki yards due to illegal use of pesticides to preserve dried fish. During a visit, New Age Xtra found that some workers were tossing Celcron 50 ec, a highly toxic pesticide on the raw fishes in the Nazirtek shutki mahal.
The labels on the bottles caution users from spraying the content on food items and also strongly prohibits spraying near children. But these warnings are hardly heeded in the mahal where such contents are sprayed on the shutki by children.
Shahadat Ullah, initially denied applying pesticide on dry fish but on seeing photographs, he admitted its use. He says, ‘Some of us use pesticide when the weather does not favour fish drying.’
According to Shahadat, around 50-60 lakh tonnes of dried fish worth around Tk 200 crore are produced from Nazirtek shutki mahal annually.
Physicians of the Cox’s Bazar Sadar Hospital inform New Age Xtra that most of the child patients coming from the shutki processing areas suffer from pneumonia, diarrhea, asthma, scabies, eczema and Taeniasis. Duty doctor Md Selim says, ‘As they work for hours in environment of the yards, full of gaseous substances, these children are easily infected with the diseases.’
Amitosh Sen, the district fisheries officer, tells New Age Xtra that vested group of dry fish traders illegally apply pesticides while violating food compliance despite prohibition and health concern raised by the government, over the years.
He also says that district administration with the fisheries department regularly conduct drives against these groups. According to the government rule, a mobile court can fine Tk five to fifty thousand or award imprisonment for applying pesticides on food items.
The fisheries officer adds that whenever a magistrate initiates the process of fining the traders, they usually show that they are extremely poor and are helpless. Amitosh regrets, ‘It has been difficult for us to tackle the crisis with a limited manpower from the department.’

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