Bangladesh transport workers feel the heat from political opposition’s strikes, blockades

Kamran Reza Chowdhury
Bangladesh transport workers feel the heat from political opposition’s strikes, blockades A bus burns during a protest where Bangladesh Nationalist Party activists blocked a highway in Dhaka to demand that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina resign, July 29, 2023.

Updated at 3:30 p.m. ET on 2023-11-30

Mohammad Alam, a bus conductor, earns about U.S. $7 for working a 14-hour round-trip route every other day from Dhaka to the northwestern city of Bogura, a 120-mile drive each way on Bangladesh’s congested roads.

But Alam’s overall earnings, as meager as they are, have fallen drastically since the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party mobilized supporters to carry out strikes and transportation blockades, which have seen scores of buses, trucks and other vehicles set ablaze in arson attacks.

“I used to get work three to four days a week. Even then, it was very difficult to get by. Now, we are in a situation where we are going without food,” Alam told BenarNews.

The BNP launched the strikes and blockades along roads and highways a month ago as it ramped up a campaign of anti-government protests ahead of a general election in January, in an attempt to cripple public transportation and force the Awami League government to resign. 

The arson attacks on mostly public transport vehicles have forced companies to pause or shrink their operations, officials said.

On Wednesday, Bangladesh’s fire service reported that at least 220 vehicles – mostly privately owned buses and trucks – had been burned since the opposition’s programs began on Oct. 29 after its grand rally on Oct. 28 turned violent and was dispersed by security forces.

In this South Asian country of 170 million people, buses are an essential means for getting from point A to point B because few Bangladeshis can afford to own a car. 

The average price-tag for a decades-old Toyota Corolla – by far the most popular car in Bangladesh – hovers between $10,000 and $13,000 (1.1 million and 1.4 million taka), a range that’s four times higher than the per capita income.  

Buses are parked at an inter-district bus terminal during a nationwide strike called by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party in Dhaka, Oct. 29, 2023. [Munir uz Zaman/AFP]

The use of violence in enforcing nationwide strikes, also known as hartals, has historically been common in Bangladesh, including when the current ruling party, the Awami League, was in the opposition, said Shakhawat Hossain Sayantha, a political commentator in Dhaka.

“Hartals and blockades have long been part of Bangladesh’s political culture. It’s nothing new,” he told BenarNews. “These tend to occur ahead of general elections. The current ruling party also enforced strikes day after day when it was in the opposition.” 

He noted, however, that even though the public tends to support the opposition’s demand, few are necessarily willing to risk their livelihoods to obey the economically painful strikes. 

“No doubt that the public is suffering because of strikes and blockades, but I don’t think that the BNP is left with any other alternatives,” he said. “They don’t have any other tool at their disposal than imposing pressure on the government.”

Before Oct. 29, the opposition, led by the BNP, had been staging a series of rallies and other forms of protests throughout the year to demand that Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina resign to make way for a neutral caretaker government to oversee the upcoming polls. Previous elections held under Hasina were controversial and marked by widespread allegations of fraud.

Hasina’s government, however, has strongly rejected the opposition’s demands and responded by arresting thousands of opposition activists, including senior party figures. 

The opposition says it will not participate in the election, slated to take place on Jan. 7, as long as Hasina remains in power.

On Thursday, a BNP spokesman confirmed that the party would not take part the election, the Agence France-Presse news service reported.

“We are boycotting the election,” A.K.M. Wahiduzzaman told AFP.

“We remained steadfast to our stand that we will not take part in any election with Sheikh Hasina in power,” he said, adding, “We won't join any farcical election.”

The Awami League and law enforcement agencies squarely blame the opposition for arson attacks during its street protests, while the opposition claims that government agents orchestrate these incidents to manufacture pretexts for crackdowns against the opposition.

“They are burning the buses and trucks to sabotage the democratic process of holding the next general elections,” Shahjahan Khan, a top Awami League leader who commands influence in the transportation sector and labor groups, told BenarNews. “But the public has rejected their tactics.”

“That’s why traffic movement is almost normal across the country. In Dhaka, we even see traffic congestion,” he said. 

However, those professionally involved with the transportation industry strongly disagree with him. 

Khorshed Alam, a supervisor at a private bus company, told BenarNews that his company operated at least 30 trips from Dhaka per day prior to the opposition agitation.

Now the number has come down to five, at best, he said.

“The owners are reluctant to resume operations due to arson attacks. Some owners defy these risks because they have bank loans to pay or must keep paying staff salaries. But even if there are buses on the roads, there aren’t many passengers anyway,” Alam said.

Buses, one of the most common modes of public transportation in Bangladesh, are seen along a street in Dhaka, June 1, 2020. [Munir uz Zaman/AFP]

It’s not just the crippling of transportation companies that sometimes brought the country to a standstill. The spillover effects from hartals can gravely impact the country’s informal service industry as well, which dominates the South Asian nation’s economy, said Khandker Golam Moazzem, research director at the Centre for Policy Dialogue, a top think-tank in Dhaka.

He said tourism, small businesses such as shops that form the service sector, where millions of low-skilled workers are employed, tend to be hit the hardest by strikes.

“The service sector is completely dependent on the movement of the people, and the strikes and blockades hamper people’s movement,” he said.

He acknowledges that hartals and blockades have been used as a common tactic by successive opposition parties to inflict maximum economic pain on the government ahead of every general election. 

“That’s why after the elections, the strikes are lifted or die down and then the economy returns to vibrancy,” he said.

“But if the strikes and blockades remain in place even after the elections, many people will start losing their jobs. 

“Even many small businesses will be forced to shut down.”

This story was updated to include a BNP spokesman's statement that his party would boycott the Jan. 7 election.


Add your comment by filling out the form below in plain text. Comments are approved by a moderator and can be edited in accordance with RFAs Terms of Use. Comments will not appear in real time. RFA is not responsible for the content of the postings. Please, be respectful of others' point of view and stick to the facts.