The present pandemic COVID-19 has created havoc in the world throwing millions out of jobs and means of livelihoods. Countries rich or poor are struggling to cope and survive as infections and death rates soar. It has created disruptions as never witnessed after the Second World War. Rich countries such as UK, US and the EU have allocated millions, billions and even trillions of dollars to offset the catastrophe suffered by businesses, joblessness and other major disruption to people's lives.
Bangladesh is no exception, although our rate of infection and death is low compared to many countries, the impact on the lives of people specially from low income groups is evident with schools, business houses, restaurants and shops closed, leaving thousands without any means of earning. The garment industry which hires about 5 million workers, mostly women, have been given a lifeline to offset massive cancellation of orders. Special incentive package has also been offered for the rural poor and massive relief operation such as distribution of food has started. The government is keen to see that the pandemic does not have an adverse impact on the poorest.
However, it is the workers in the informal sector who are left more vulnerable than others and merits our attention. The Labour Law of 2006 is a comprehensive one which was further refined in 2010, 2013 and 2018 providing detailed guidelines for the workers-employers relations and benefits. However, the informal sector workers are not included. The Bangladesh Worker Welfare Foundation Act 2006 defines informal sector as those "private bodies where the terms and conditions of employment of workers and other relevant issues are not determined or guided by the provisions of the existing Labour Act, Rules or Policy, promulgated thereunder, and where there is very limited scope for the workers to be unionised". This Foundation was created specifically to come to the aid of all workers, whether formal or informal in case of emergencies for them and their dependents. Although the National Labour Policy 2006 mentions workers of the informal sector as a huge working force whose skills need to be developed, quote: "One of the important duties of the Government is to ensure the rights and welfare of the Labourers. The Government, focusing on this target, shall take initiatives to enact necessary laws to upgrade the living standards of the huge number of people, working in the informal sector." However, this law is yet to be enacted as workers in the informal sector continue to be out of the purview of the Labour Law.
The present situation and especially the lockdown (which was necessary) has put workers in the informal sector in a precarious situation. The informal sector accounts for 51.4 percent of total national employment which is about 64 million people. They are the rickshaw pullers, agriculture workers, construction workers, hawkers, rag pickers, transport workers, part time domestic workers, etc. (source: BBS). Child workers are included numbering around 4.8 million or 12.6 percent aged from 5 to 14. 83 percent are employed in rural and 17 percent in urban areas, they mostly work in the transport sector, as hawkers, rag pickers, in biri and welding factories, etc.
With schools and offices shut rickshaw pullers have no passengers, construction work has come to a halt therefore day labourers are sitting idle. Self-employed workers and hawkers, both men and women who earn a living by selling food and other daily use items have no buyers. The disruption is total and widespread. While the well to do people are either working from home and spending time reading, exercising or meditating, the poor are waiting desperately for the situation to improve.
As we all know, women and children face a disproportionate brunt of any crisis be it war, social unrest or a pandemic like the present one. Women in the informal sector not only earn a living to support their families but also have to take care of their children. Given the closure of every means of livelihood, there is no alternative back up for them. Women headed households are in special jeopardy. Street and working children, boys and girls whose lives are already precarious find themselves bereft of the little social support they had. Shelters, drop-in centres and other facilities have closed down. Their meagre earning is now nil. They have to go back to their families who have no means to support them. Adolescent girls and boys are particularly vulnerable and may fall prey to anti-social groups who will exploit them further.
Government relief initiatives are laudable, however, concern remains about coverage. What about the specially marginalised groups such as persons with disability, sex workers, minority population, people living in hard to reach areas and of course children? We know of the challenges surrounding proper targeting of the social safety net programmes. In this situation strategies to address different segments of the vulnerable population and a proper database is required. However, it should be noted people need more than just rice, dal and cooking oil to survive. They need cash to face the uncertain future such as sickness, accidents, etc.
Just as workers in the formal sector, informal sector workers need to be paid. Employers are urged not to deduct their salary during the present lockdown. The Workers Welfare Foundation mandated to respond to emergencies should transfer to them cash equivalent of two month's salary. City corporations and local authorities can issue ration cards for three months. Social safety net programmes should cover informal workers also. Collaboration with the NGO sector, many already in the field, will assist government to accelerate relief efforts. The Social Welfare Department is especially urged to take responsibility for working and street children. All initiatives have to be undertaken on an emergency basis as seven days of lockdown has passed compromising food intake and health status of millions.
It is the workers in the informal sector who keep our domestic economy moving. Just think what would happen if all such workers stopped working for a day. In this time of crisis, they deserve our special attention.
Shaheen Anam is Executive Director, Manusher Jonno Foundation.