Overlooked by state and law, informal workers on the verge of starvation
People employed in the informal sector get little attention from the policymakers although they account for 85 per cent of the country's total employed population of 6.08 crore and keep the wheel of the economy humming.
In Bangladesh, the existing labour law is formal or organised sector-centric and the issues of workers in the unorganised sector don't get reflected in the law despite undergoing several revisions since framed in 2006.
The informal workforce has been ignored in the labour law as there is little scope to organise workers in unions.
"The whole informal sector has remained out of the purview of the legal process," said Razequzzaman Ratan, president of the Socialist Labour Front.
Now, almost all the informal economy workers -- jobs that generally lack basic social or legal protections or employment benefits -- have been significantly impacted by the lockdown measures in the world, according to the International Labour Organisation.
What will happen to them is anyone's guess.
Take the case of Abul Kalam. The 55-year old had been earning a living for his six-member family by selling used files, card-holders and old diaries on the footpath of Purana Paltan in Dhaka city.
The job brought him Tk 500 daily before the government enforced the shutdown on March 26 to flatten the curve on coronavirus in the country.
Initially, he managed to buy food through his savings and later on handouts from generous people and organisations.
"Our condition is so bad that I cannot even buy an antacid tablet. Neither can I buy food, medicine nor can I pay house rent."
The elderly knew that the government is providing food aid to the vulnerable and he visited the ward councillor's office two weeks ago.
"We only hear that the government is supporting more than a crore people but we have not got anything yet," said the despondent Kalam.
The labour ministry has formed crisis management committees at the district level and the panels are tasked with making lists of affected workers and submitting the lists to local administration for food aid.
There are, however, provisions to support the informal sector workers under the Bangladesh Labour Welfare Foundation Act 2006 and a Tk 400 crore-fund has been formed to support workers, particularly for treatment and education of children.
"Workers are the owners of the fund. A portion of the fund could be utilised during this coronavirus crisis. But we have not seen any initiative in this regard," Ratan said.
The government could have done something for the workers through the foundation if it were proactive, said Jafrul Hasan Sharif, a labour law expert.
There is no coverage for the informal sector workers in the Labour Act 2006. Workers in the informal sector have been defined only in the Labour Welfare Foundation Law, he added.
"A huge number of people are now unemployed and they are struggling to make ends meet. At this moment, the Bangladesh Labour Welfare Foundation should come forward," said Kohinoor Mahmood, director of the Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies.
Murshiqul Islam, executive president of the Bangladesh Hawkers Union, termed the state's response inhuman.
"The state has failed to carry out its responsibility."
Nearly 10 lakh street vendors and their employees have been hit hard by the lockdown measures.
"There are in serious trouble," he added.