Informal Sector Workers: Hardly cared for in hard times | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, May 05, 2021 / LAST MODIFIED: 03:00 AM, May 05, 2021

Informal Sector Workers: Hardly cared for in hard times

Inadequate govt support, job loss leave them ravaged amid pandemic; no official data on those affected by the crisis

The latest restrictions on movement have dealt another fatal blow to workers in the informal sector in the absence of adequate government support required to survive a prolonged period without work.

Last year, these workers had endured a difficult time between March 26 and the end of May when the government imposed a general shutdown to keep the coronavirus pandemic at bay. The state of their livelihoods has only worsened this time around.

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"Some organisations and people extended their hand by way of giving relief to workers during the last year's lockdown. Such initiatives are completely absent this year," said Md Murshikul Islam, president of the Bangladesh Hawker Workers Trade Union Centre.

"Our lives are going up in flames, but nobody is thinking of us and how we are struggling to survive. We have so far not got any support from the government. How can we live?"

This is not only the case for hawkers but also for workers in transportation, construction, hotels and restaurants, and other arenas of the urban informal sector who are suffering the dire consequences of no social or legal protection and job benefits.

Hunger is now a regular feature of their lives, said leaders of various workers' unions in the informal sector. While some will receive the cash support the government is providing to the poorest, experts say the amount is too little and the number of recipients too few to have an impact on the large informal sector.

Murshikul said a good number of hawkers took out microcredit loans at a high interest rate of around 25 percent from non-government organisations to do business ahead of the upcoming Eid.

"Hawkers usually enjoy a good earning during Eid every year. We had missed the business of last year's Eid when the government imposed a lockdown, which destroyed all our savings," he said.

There are around 10 lakh hawkers in the country, who are now unable to provide for their family's basic needs, Murshikul said.

The government has so far announced 23 stimulus packages involving Tk 1,24,053 crore, more than four percent of the country's gross domestic product (GDP). But the majority of these schemes were created to serve the formal sector.

There are 6.08 crore employed labourers in the country, 85.1 percent of whom work in the informal sector, according to the Labour Force Survey 2016-17 carried out by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS). Though the sector contributes around 50 percent of the economy, its workers are left out of government support schemes.

A major reason for this is there is no government database of informal workers or recent official figures on how many such workers are there across the country.

KM Abdus Salam, secretary of the Ministry of Labour and Employment, said the government is now operating relief programmes under district commissioner (DC) offices.

It is slightly tough to identify workers in the informal sector as there is no database on them, he added.

Razequzzaman Ratan, president of the Socialist Labour Front, said according to their estimates, at least 60 percent of informal sector workers have lost their jobs due to the pandemic and ongoing economic situation.

Although there is no government survey on how many people lost their jobs due to the economic shock caused by the coronavirus pandemic, Rizwanul Islam, a former special adviser to the employment sector of the International Labour Organisation, estimated that around 1.35 crore workers in the informal sector lost their jobs during last year's shutdown.

Published in the form of a book titled "Shocks of Coronavirus on the Economy and Labour Market" in March this year, Rizwanul, also a former teacher of Dhaka University's economics department, calculated this based on data from the Labour Force Survey 2016-17.

WORKERS' WOES

Aktarujjaman Khan, president of the Bangladesh Hotel Restaurant Sweetmeat Bakery Workers Union, said no workers of the union have so far got any support from the government since the start of the pandemic.

Around 30 lakh workers are involved in the sector and they have been hit hard financially, he said.

Almost all hotels and restaurants were closed across the country during last year's shutdown and the current situation is once again the same after the government declared restrictions on movement since April 5.

"We have so far submitted four statements to the prime minister and the state minister for labour in the last year. But the government has not paid heed to address our woes," Aktarujjaman said.

At least 40 percent workers -- 12 lakh -- who were rendered unemployed failed to get back their jobs between June last year and this March, even after the government relaxed the shutdown, as restaurant owners kept a reduced number of staffers at their establishments, Aktarujjaman said.

The union demanded the government provide Tk 10,000 per month as an incentive to every unemployed worker.

Employed workers have also now lost their jobs in the wake of the recent restrictions, he said, as only very few restaurants are now open to sell iftar items.

Md Abdur Rajjak, general secretary of the Imarat Nirman Sramik Union Bangladesh, said his organisation had lost interest in demanding support from the government for construction workers.

Earlier, they placed their demands to the government a number of times, but no response has so far been forthcoming, he said.

He, however, said a few construction workers managed to get relief support from several DC offices last year.

At least 40 percent of construction workers -- 16 lakh -- have become unemployed due to the ongoing restrictions on movement, he said.

"The workers are now in a critical condition as they do not have any income sources except their labour. But this way is now largely closed," Rajjak said.

At a Road Transport Workers Federation press conference at the National Press Club on April 30, General Secretary Osman Ali said around 50 lakh transport workers became jobless and their livelihoods uncertain ahead of Eid-ul-Fitr.

"They are leading a miserable life along with their family members," he said.

Some organisations involved in the transport sector recently demanded the government provide financial assistance and introduce rations for workers, urging the government to sell rice at Tk 10 per kg at the bus terminals to workers.

The federation also demanded public transport services be resumed immediately, which remain officially suspended due to the Covid-19 restrictions till at least today.

CASH SUPPORT TOO LITTLE

Like last year, the government is providing another round of Tk 2,500 cash assistance through mobile financial service providers to the same families which received assistance last year.

Around 34.97 lakh families got Tk 2,500 each under a Tk 1,258-crore stimulus package last year.

The target beneficiaries included rickshaw-pullers, day labourers, construction workers, farmers, shop employees, people working at small businesses, and transport workers.

However, the cash support provided by the government is not adequate, said Nazneen Ahmed, a senior research fellow of the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies, adding that no lockdown can be effective if the government does not provide adequate support to the poor.

A four-member household requires at least Tk 6,000 per month to live in an urban area as per the Household Income and Expenditure Survey carried out by BBS in 2016, she said.

"But the capacity of the government to provide such financial assistance is weak. So, workers of the informal sector should be allowed to join their work by relaxing the restrictions."

However, the government has not taken sufficiently strict measures to ensure people are following health protocols, Nazneen added.

Khondaker Golam Moazzem, research director of the Centre for Policy Dialogue, also said, "Both the amount and the number of beneficiaries are too small given the size of the informal sector."

Although the country's economy is greatly dependent on the informal sector, the workers are neglected in terms of getting assistance from the government, he said.

Informal sector workers in general face various troubles in doing their jobs as they lack legal protection from their employers and the Covid-19 situation has worsened their situation as many of them have lost their jobs outright, Khondaker said.

The authorities concerned should take a plan to provide cash support at least thrice this year as the initiative will help improve their purchasing power, which will have a positive impact on the overall economy, he said.

The amount of cash support for the informal sector is significantly lower than the funds the formal sector has received in the form of stimulus packages from the government.

The government should also create a database of the workers in the informal sector with the help of the different labour unions, which will also allow them to reach out to the proper people to provide the cash support, Khondaker added.

Asked whether the labour ministry had taken any initiative to create a database, Secretary KM Abdus Salam said that they have taken a move to this end.

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