JAFLONG, Bangladesh (WOMENSENEWS)–Sometimes 15-year-old Sapna loves the Piyain River. Mostly though, she hates it. Happy when she rides her brother’s boat to cross the river. Sad when she has to grudgingly claw through the murky water for stones.

She collects at least five baskets a day for 40 cents each.

"I have been collecting stones since I was 8," said Sapna, who, like many in rural Bangladesh, uses only her first name.

"But why should I work everyday? Sometimes I just get away for a boat ride," said the dust-caked young woman with sunburnt hair, chapped hands and bright eyes.

The Piyain River slices through Jaflong in Sylhet district near the Indo-Bangla border. During monsoons the river carries down stones of all sizes from the nearby Indian hills.

Thousands of laborers–the majority women and girls–collect the stones from dawn to well past midnight to feed 250 gargantuan crushing machines that chew and churn out stone chips for transport by nearly 1,000 trucks each day. The trucks are bound for house- and road-building projects around the country. In the peak winter season, the quarry employs 10,000 people.

Jaflong is one of the many unregulated stone crushing sites that have in the last decade sprouted across the country in response to a demand for building materials in the capital Dhaka, the fastest growing megacity in the world, and smaller cities of Bangladesh.

Women Paid Less

The stone crushing industry prefers hiring women and girls because they can be paid less.

"More women are working here. They are paid less because they are physically weak and bad bargainers," said Kamal Mir, a laborer. Women don’t make more than $2 a day, while men earn $3 to $5 daily, doing a variety of jobs such as loading trucks and diving into the river to collect stones, he says.

The stone rush has turned the riverbank into a giant, stinking, clanging labyrinth of towering crushers, cranes, bulldozers, fractured rocks, trucks, gaping craters, dunes, boats and shacks. It adds up to a mechanical roar that turns the sky into a permanent choking cloud of dust.

Barefooted workers cover their heads with thin coarse cotton towels. Skin and respiratory problems are common. Women suffer from urinary infections because of standing in the water for long hours. There are a few rickety toilets for women, built with bamboo poles, tarp and jute sacks. The workers live in flimsy, hand-built shanties. Poor hygiene and unsafe drinking water leads to frequent bouts of waterborne diseases.

To scrape up enough to eat, people work shifts of 10 and 12 hours. Even 5-year-olds are seen scouring for stones to earn $1.50 a day.

"I can hardly afford food, So, I always try to work a few extra hours," said Alya Begum, a mother of two, standing knee-deep in water.

A sick day is a hungry day. If she misses work, the contractor will fire her.

"Some days when I or my children are ill, I drag myself to work," she said.

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Bijoyeta Das is a multimedia journalist currently covering South Asia. Her work is available at www.bijoyetadas.com.