More than a crore with no job and hope
Perhaps Bangladesh has the highest number of people out of jobs thanks to the protracted shutdown that has taken away income opportunities for tens of thousands of people, particularly in the informal sector. Or, perhaps not.
We would never know given the apathy in the Ministry of Labour and Employment (MoLE).
This does not end here.
There is no database of workers in government labour offices although the Labour Policy 2012 says that the government will take steps to maintain detailed information on employed workers based on each firm and sector.
The policy also says that the government will maintain data of job seekers and job opportunities to attain the government's top priority goal of creating employment opportunities for the working population.
The Daily Star inquired officials of three departments, Department of Labour (DOL), Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishment (DIFE) and Bangladesh Labour Welfare Foundation (BLWF), to know whether they have taken any steps to enrol the jobless workers, particularly those who were working in the informal sector, and to support them overcome these tough days.
"No, no. It is not possible to do any list of unemployed at this situation of lockdown. But if they want to operate their activities, we can provide them guidance on how to do that by ensuring safety and social distance," said DIFE Inspector General Shib Nath Roy.
No initiative has also been taken to create a database of workers, he said.
"This cannot be done without a project. We have not been able to take any project," he said.
And replying to a question of why no steps have been taken so far, he said: "It is difficult to answer so many questions during this period of general holiday. Let the offices open. This can be seen then."
The DOL, another agency under the MOLE, also does nothing to create a database of workers and the number of jobless people in the country.
Despite repeated attempts, DOL Director General AKM Mizanur Rahman did not receive calls for comment last week.
However, Mohammad Aminul Haque, director of Divisional Labour Office Dhaka and also the convenor of Crisis Management Committee on Labour issues related to the coronavirus crisis, could be reached.
Haque said they have taken an initiative to collect a list of workers in the informal sector through labour leaders.
Until the middle of last week, it got a list of 42,000 construction workers and rickshaw-van pullers.
"We will make a database after collecting all the names," he said on April 27.
The number of people without work claimed by several workers' rights organisation vary from 1.5 crore to upwards of 5 crore, while two economists said the number would be between 1.30 crore and 1.50 crore.
This is five times the official number of unemployed population of 27 lakh as per the latest Labour Force Survey (LFS) 2017.
When the first confirmed cases of COVID-19 were announced on March 8, Bangladesh had 6.08 crore people in employment.
It is the duty and role of the government to collect and make available such data or for that matter data on employment and labour force of the country on an up-to-date basis, said Rizwanul Islam, a former special adviser of employment sector at the International Labour Office, Geneva.
The number of people who have gone out of work for the pandemic would be 1.5 crore, said Wazeul Islam Khan, general secretary of Bangladesh Trade Union Centre.
The labour ministry had a plan to prepare a database but no specific initiative has been taken yet.
"There is no alternative to preparing a list of workers to provide food assistance for the unemployed workers. We have demanded steps to bring all unorganised sectors under a mechanism and a stimulus package for the informal sector," he added.
Everyone in the unorganised sector has been sitting idle for the one month for lockdown, said Quamrul Ahsan, president of the Jatiaya Sramik Federation.
"The number of people without jobs would be five crore plus," he added.
The government should be happy that these 1.5 crore workers have created their own income-earning opportunities, said ATM Nurul Amin, professor of Department of Economics and Social Sciences at BRAC University.
"All they need is protection from calamity time, as it is now when they cannot remain engaged in income-earning opportunities."
If the government were to create 1.5 crore jobs, directly or indirectly, the cost would have been huge and certainly unaffordable.
"Thus, some support schemes during disruptions of their economic activities as they are now ought to be the minimum that the government needs to do."
City Ward authorities can be given the responsibility for listing. Respective community schools and students can be counted upon to assist in this task, added Amin.
"The distress of people should be an eyeopener for all. Let us do something for them. It is never too late. Still, we can take initiative to list people in the informal sector."
In all likelihood, most of the urban informal sector workers have gone to their villages.
"This offers an opportunity for engaging them immediately to the agricultural sector."
At this harvesting time, this can be a good opportunity to ease seasonal labour scarcity in the rural area. The other opportunity is to keep them permanently in their respective villages, he added.
Razequzzaman Ratan, president of Socialist Labour Front, said a portion of the workforce in the agriculture sector are engaged in the harvesting of Boro paddy. A section of people from the informal sectors has joined farm work.
Taking this into consideration, it can be said that nearly 3 crore of the total accounted formally employed population have been without work since March, he said.
"There is no way to systematically protect workers in the unorganised sector without a proper database," said Kohinoor Mahmood, director of Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies (BILS).
In India, there is a database, and the neighbouring country has the arrangement to support workers in the informal sector such as those working in the construction and transport sectors.
"Here, on one hand, there is no database of workers. And on the other, there is also no system or government office to report joblessness if anyone is unemployed," Mahmood added.
And preparing a database should not be too difficult.
For instance, there is already a database of farmers and fishermen prepared by the agriculture and fisheries ministries, said Jafrul Hasan, a labour law expert.
Something similar could be done here had there been a desire to do so and these data would have been very useful during this time of crisis, he added.
"If anyone becomes jobless here, the person not only becomes helpless and hopeless, he/she loses his/her identity as there is no place for documentation," Ratan added.