Social security of workers needs futuristic and permanent plans
We have just come past the 'May Day' or the 'International Workers' Day', commonly known as 'Labor Day'. Throughout the world, this day is observed on May 1 to promote the rights and welfares of the workers. The workers are possibly the worst hit group of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, especially in countries like ours. Unfortunately, this 'May Day' could not bring much change to this neglected group of our society other than fake promises and usual statements from different political leaders or groups. If we really want to bring changes to the fate of the workers in Bangladesh, we need to think out of the box considering different aspects of our country.
The COVID-19 has created tremendous negative impacts on the livelihood of the workers in Bangladesh. Many people working in the informal sector have lost their job and income due to the ongoing pandemic. Unemployment and poverty among the people in both urban and rural areas throughout the country have increased. Hence, Bangladesh needs to adopt employment-oriented and benefit-oriented economic policies that are capable to ensure social security of the workers along with creation of more jobs and reduction of poverty and inequality.
A large number of people have recently become jobless while many more are at the danger of losing jobs. Particularly, the poor segment of the population who have very small or no saving at all is the worst victim of the economic meltdown. It is estimated that COVID-19 has pushed 16.5 million people mainly rickshaw-pullers, transport workers, day laborers, street-vendors, hawkers, construction laborers and the employees of hotel, motel and restaurants back into poverty. According to sources, around 20 million people who solely rely on the informal sector jobs for their livelihood have already lost their jobs and become momentarilyjobless due to the measures taken by the government to contain the spread of COVID-19.
On this 'May Day', many workers were found to go out for work and they told that, their priority was to feed their family members and this 'May Day' did not put any significance in their lives. They are already suffering from the negative impact of COVID-19 and lockdown on their livelihoods and this suffering is not going to end very soon. Our neighboring country India is going through the worst phase of COVID-19 transmission with the deadly 'Bengal Variant'. This variant is almost certain to enter Bangladesh at some point.
Though we are going through a so-called lockdown with offices, factories, shopping malls etc. open, this is not going to help us much. To keep the economy ongoing, the government had to open factories, shopping malls etc. and the mass transport is going to be open soon. People are rushing to the shopping malls and will definitely leave the city for upcoming Eid-ul-Fitr. Moreover, we are reopening flights with many countries, which will pose immense risks in terms of importing new COVID-19 variants into Bangladesh. Though COVID-19 is coming under control reportedly, certainly, the scenario will worsen in the near future. Hence, the misery of the workers and the low and middle-income group is going to increase soon.
COVID-19 has shown us how vulnerable are the workers. It also reminded some important issues that were ignored or were not focused previously on economic policy measures by the government. Not only economic growth but also the kind of success that has been seen in poverty alleviation in the last few decades has taken a big shake in the last few months. Suddenly a huge population has fallen below the poverty line. Those who were poor before have become poorer. There is also a fear that a large part of them will not be able to get out of poverty suddenly. Thus, the ongoing crisis has had a medium to long-term impact.
To make economic growth inclusive for all people, three areas are very important: poverty alleviation, employment growth and elimination of inequality. The indicators that are prevalent about poverty and inequality in the Bangladesh economy are actually very unrealistic and are measured only by measuring income. As a result, the multi-dimensional nature of poverty remains ignored and unfocused. A policy focus on such a multi-dimensional concept of poverty alleviation in the post-COVID situation is needed.
Besides poverty, one of the country's biggest challenges is job creation. The rate at which employment has grown over the past few decades is much lower than the rate at which economic growth has grown. Moreover, the post-COVID situation will pose a major challenge to current employment and future employment creation initiatives. During the COVID, many have been forced to change professions, enter lower jobs, work for lower wages and have lost their livelihoods.
Bangladesh has seen the pace of economic growth over the past decades but also the grey picture of inequality. Besides economic inequality, the issue of social inequality is also very high in Bangladesh. There are major inequalities in access to health and education services. Despite strong growth over the past decades, economic inequality has increased which raises the question of how inclusive this growth is.
It is very important at this time to have an idea and preparation for how to rebuild the economy. The COVID-19 situation demands a departure from our conventional philosophies. In the post-COVID-19 situation, a new action plan is also needed for the drivers of Bangladesh's economy in the new reality. At the same time, it is time to make reforms and action plans that could not be made in the pre-COVID-19 situation, but which is urgently needed for inclusive development.
Crisis creates an opportunity to think new. One of the positive aspects of this ongoing crisis is that it gives an opportunity to rethink the development philosophy, economic philosophy and action plan of the days ahead. The focus of that new thinking should be to move away from growth-centric narrow thinking and move towards a multi-dimensional development plan.
We have to ensure financial security of everyone except the government employees. For example; VAT benefit can be a source of that security. Whatever product we, including the workers, consume or use, we have to pay VAT. The government can issue a VAT identification number to the workers and can establish a 'VAT Reclaim System'. In case of their death or disability,60 percent of the total VAT paid by a person in his lifetime can be returned to him or his family. Moreover, after 60 years of age, as they become senior citizens, the same amount can be provided to them as pension. This will ensure their financial security as well as will reduce the black money issues and VAT collection cost.
Moreover, the food security must be ensured for the workers. They should be brought under rationing system. They should be provided ration cards soon so that, they can avail food products for their families in low price. The food security will reduce many ill features of our society like; child labor. The workers of our country could not maintain their families and their children also enter into labor at a very tender age.
As these children are deprived of education and healthy childhood, there always remain risks of them becoming burden for the country as they can easily turn into outlaws, criminals or terrorists as they can be easily used by the ill forces. If we cannot secure the future of these children, the development of the country will go in vain at some point.
COVID-19 is going to put us in very tough situations in the near future. Though Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, with her valorous leadership, is trying to address the needs of different groups, these are not going to be enough. We need to workout permanent plans for securing the fate of our workers hailing from the low-income group. We need to ensure food, cloth, shelter and medical facilities for them. We hope, our policy makers treat this matter with utmost seriousness. Otherwise, the COVID-19 and post COVID-19 era will be a disaster for Bangladesh.
The writer is Chief Editor at Mohammadi News Agency (MNA), Editor at Kishore Bangla and Chief Patron, Bangabandhu Shishu Kishore Mela