‘Sustainability of businesses depends on how we protect our workers from COVID-19’
Tuomo Poutiainen, country director at the International Labour Organisation, speaks about May Day, measures aimed at tackling the coronavirus pandemic and the importance of protecting workers, by Refayet Ullah Mirdha and Md Fazlur Rahman
How do you look at this May Day in the context of the pandemic?
This May Day came during difficult global and local health and socioeconomic crises. The pandemic has disproportionately affected some sectors of the population who are already vulnerable and lack little or no social protection coverage. These groups include women, youth, older workers, indigenous people, migrants, those with disabilities and self-employed persons.
The crisis has highlighted that some professionals who are usually undervalued or even ignored are the working heroes of this pandemic -- care workers, cleaners, grocery sellers, supermarket cashiers, delivery and transport staff -- are often among the ranks of the working poor.
Our current and future policy choices should address these inequalities exposed by the pandemic. On this May Day, let us reflect on our past shortcomings in the world of work and adjust priorities to ensure decent work and future for all working women and men.
The priorities should be adequate social protection to protect the vulnerable; improved working conditions to safeguard workers in their workplaces; and a strong social dialogue between government, employers and workers to find sustainable and equitable solutions to labour market issues.
What are the ILO's recommendations for protecting workers once factories start reopening?
ILO Director-General Guy Ryder said, "In the face of an infectious disease outbreak, how we protect our workers now clearly dictates how safe our communities are, and how resilient our businesses will be, as this pandemic evolves."
Strong safety and health measures for workers are the first requirements when considering a return to workplaces. Protective workplace-specific measures must be adopted based on common dialogue between employers and workers, and a shared understanding of coronavirus risks.
Do you think the factories are following the health and safety rules properly?
The sustainability of businesses depends on how we protect our workers from COVID-19. To safeguard workers and prevent the transmission of the virus in workplaces, the ILO has developed COVID-19 specific Occupational Safety and Health guidelines, together with the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments of Bangladesh.
Once endorsed and officially out there, businesses must ensure that they are applied and that management and workers understand them and are equipped to follow them.
In the first week of April, hundreds of thousands of workers desperately tried to return to Dhaka and other industrial belts defying lockdown to keep jobs?
In the absence of protection such as sick leave or unemployment benefits, millions of workers may need to make a cruel choice between their health and their livelihoods, which not only puts them at risk but also others they come in contact with.
Preventive and protective measures are the most effective ways to keep it at bay. Hence, ensuring decent working conditions and rights for workers is as important as ever, and to the benefit of society and the economy at large.
What challenges do you see for the factory owners and workers as they resume production?
As garment factories start to reopen in Bangladesh, every factory will have to face its own unique set of challenges. However, collectively, the most pressing challenge will be to ensure proper health and safety conditions in factories to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
Although there is no doubt about the commitment of most factory owners to keep the workers safe, there is a real risk of coronavirus infection in factories as the number of COVID-19 cases is still on the rise in Bangladesh, particularly in densely populated industrial belts, where most of the factories are located.
The Better Work Bangladesh has already released a COVID-19 Management Guidance to help the industry ensure that workplaces are safe and healthy while being able to maintain operations.
Has Bangladesh done enough to protect workers during lockdown?
The government of Bangladesh was quick to respond to the threat of COVID-19 and had very little choice but to announce a general holiday. This was the same measure taken by every other country and is a proven approach to slowing down the virus.
The government is providing food and financial support. As the crises evolves, this type of support needs to be continued. The current crisis highlights the need for social protection measures that can help countries weather economic shocks.
What are your suggestions so that the workers don't lose jobs because of coronavirus?
The ILO is calling for urgent and significant policy responses to protect enterprises and workers operating in both the formal and informal economies.
We are recommending employment retention through work-sharing and reskilling, and extending social protection to ensure income security, access to subsistence allowance and basic healthcare for all workers.
The Bangladesh government has commendably announced several stimulus packages to support industries and enterprises to continue their businesses. What is important is also reaching the workers and enterprises who need it the most.
Change in workplace safety since Rana Plaza building collapse?
Bangladesh has come a long way since the 2013 Rana Plaza tragedy. Thousands of factories have been inspected on electrical, fire and structural safety.
A wide range of safety remediation and improvement measures have been taken and many tens of thousands of employers and workers educated and trained on occupational safety and health.
Yet not all factories are up to the agreed standards and more still needs to be done to mitigate safety and health risks at workplaces.
What are your recommendations for skills development for the workers?
The ILO has projected that nearly half of the global workforce -- around 1.6 billion people -- are at risk of losing their livelihoods. The need to reskill and/or upskill these laid-off workers will be critical.
Moreover, hundreds of thousands of migrant workers are also coming home and many may not have jobs to go back to.
The ILO is working with the Ministry of Expatriates to provide essential entrepreneurship and skills development training to returnee migrants to help them to better reintegrate into the domestic labour market.
We will also be exploring means to formalise their existing skills and experiences via recognition of prior learning certification process. This will help boost their future job prospects in Bangladesh and overseas.