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Institutional framework and permanent standards are needed for social security of workers during crisis

Researchers, civil society representatives and trade union leaders have argued that an institutional framework and permanent standards are needed to ensure workers’ social security during crisis moment. This view was expressed by the speakers at a webinar titled “COVID-19 and Social Security and Protection of Workers: Pathway to an Inclusive and Sustainable Way Forward” organized by Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies-BILS on July 18, 2020.

Main objectives of the webinar were comparative analysis of the social security deficits, vulnerabilities of working people due to COVID-19, review of social security policies and legal frameworks, and the current situation to determine what needs to be done to ensure social security for working people.

BILS Chairman Md. Habibur Rahman Shiraz chaired the meeting, while BILS Joint Secretary General and Executive Director Nazrul Islam Khan acted as moderator. Professor of the  Department of Development Studies at Dhaka University Dr. Rashed Al Mahmud Titumir presented the key-note paper. Former secretray of the Ministry of Labour and Employment Mikail Shipar was present as key discussant. Distinguished Fellow of Center for Policy Dialogue Professor Mustafizur Rahman and Research Director Dr. Khondaker Golam Moazzem, Member of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on the Ministry of Labour and Employment Shamsunnahar Bhuiyan, MP, Jatiyo Sramik Jote President and BILS Advisory Council Member Mesbahuddin Ahmed, Trade Union Sangha General Secretary Chowdhury Ashiqul Alam, Workers Specialist at ILO South Asia Decent work technical team Syed Sultan Uddin Ahmmed, Sramik Karmachari Oikya Parishad Joint Coordinator and BILS Advisory Council Member Naimul Ahsan Jewel, ILO EII Project National Project Coordinator Noushin Shafinaz Shah, ILO SD and RI Project Programme Officer Jamil Ansar were present as special discussants.

In the main article Rashed Al Mahmud Titumir said the contribution of working people in the journey of economic restructuring and growth of Bangladesh during Kovid-19 is immense. But adequate employment is not create compared to growth. He said, actual wage rates have also declined. The receipt of capital is more than the receipt of labour he added. The amount of wealth of the upper class people of the society is increasing day by day, while the amount of wealth of the lower class people is decreasing. He also said a huge portion of the labour market is young. They are engaged in education, training and employment, while they are unemployed and their numbers are increasing day by day. However, according to official estimates, poverty in the country is declining.

He said that if the employment increases, poverty will decrease. So employment should be the focus here. However, he noted that social inequality is on the rise, adding that regional inequality is also on the rise. Noting that the data provided by national and international research and development institutes on economic losses were in line with those provided by the government, he said it was noticeable that people’s incomes had declined. The government’s social security program is 3 percent of GDP and 15 percent of the budget, but it has been reduced in the current budget if government savings certificates are excluded, he said. He noted that these security programs are scattered across various ministries and need to be coordinated.

Dr. Titumir said, the government has announced an incentive package of more than 1 lakh crore. However, these are loans and dependent on banks. The government has facilitated these to keep the flow of money easy. However, the question remains as to how successful it will be in bank dependency. He emphasized the importance of launching information bank on employment in the field. He commented that the next census is very important in this case. He said trade unions need to clarify their position on what needs to be done for growth and come forward to protect employment.

Speaking as the keynote discussant, former Secretary of the Ministry of Labour and Employment Mikail Shipar said it is noteworthy that social awareness among the people has increased. So the local people are quite aware of the implementation of social security. However, although the implementation of the incentive package is dependent on the bank, the bank has not yet gone public. He commented that this issue should be seriously considered.

Noting that the employers are not aware enough about job security, he said that the employers are not very active in creating new jobs. He also said that specific policies are needed considering the new situation. He emphasized on ensuring labour rights at all levels, formal and informal. Mentioning that the workers in the informal sector have gone to the lower level during COVID-19, he said that Bangladesh has to find an alternative labour market for this.

Noting that workers in all sectors have been affected by COVID-19, Shamsunnahar Bhuiyan, MP, said, “We need to work on the impact that China’s economic transformation on our industrial trade.” He emphasized on creating employment by providing short-term training to unemployed youth and workers who lost their jobs due to COVID-19. He called for bringing those who lost their jobs under social security.

Distinguished Fellow of CPD, Professor Mustafizur Rahman said, “COVID-19 has brought three-dimensional disaster for us, which includes health disaster, employment disaster and economic disaster. He said, “We are realizing how much we are capable of dealing with the growth risks during COVID-19.” He further said that if the organisation cannot be kept alive, the employment of the workers cannot be maintained. He aslo mentioned that emphasis must be placed on macroeconomic management, trade union rights must be kept alive, workers’ employment must be saved through incentives and social security, health care, rationing system for working people should also be maintained. We need to take advantage of this by focusing on the global initiatives of brand buyers, he added. Besides, the government has to take appropriate initiatives by paying attention to the issue of international debt waiver, he said. Noting that the government-owner-worker tripartite meeting is very much needed now, he said that in this time of crisis, the tripartite consultative council can sit down and take proper decision.

Mentioning that COVID-19 has made the lives of working people in Bangladesh miserable, SKOP Joint Coordinator Naimul Ahsan Jewel said, to ensure employment, wages and social security of the workers during the COVID-19 period, everyone has to come forward in a coordinated manner at the government and private levels. He said it was very important to set up a corona testing center for workers in labour intensive areas. He said the government-constituted Crisis Management Committee suggested incentives, but without much discussion, little progress was made. Although the Ministry of Labour & Employment had to do something about this, it was not noticeable enough. Although there were clear instructions to get incentives from the government, there was no progress in implementing them at the grassroots level. Although the garment sector is at risk of employment, the TCC has not made any progress. About two crore people have moved towards the villages. Decentralization of employment is expected to boost the economy if half of them are brought under control. He also demanded to list the sector based trade unions and provide assistance to the workers through them. He also said that SKOP was formulating a nine-point demand on how to protect workers during COVID-19. He mentioned that if these nine points can be implemented, the existing problems can be solved to a large extent.

BILS Advisory Council Member Mesbahuddin Ahmed said, the poor and low-income working people were at the highest risk during the COVID-19 period. In addition to focusing on GDP growth, the emphasis should now be on the humanities. He said returning migrant workers need to look into temporary employment. In this case, they need to provide the necessary bank loan assistance. Workers who are not yet at risk may be at risk due to the long-term damage of COVID-19, he noted. He mentioned that if the accident insurance system was introduced for the workers, the workers would get some assistance in the current system. He argued that privatisation is not felt well beneficial in the current situation. He said that since the power of trade unions is less now, the Department of Labour should play an important role in that regard. He demanded the introduction of health insurance for workers.

Trade Union Sanga General Secretary Chowdhury Ashiqul Alam said, workers always wanted to move toward industrial relations. Entrepreneurs take the opportunity but do not want to go ahead. In this case, it is difficult to move forward without mutual dignity. And because of that long-term development is hampered. “If we do not come up with a clear plan and structure, our development will be hampered in the COVID-19 situation,” he said.

Workers Activities Specialist at ILO South Asia’s Decent Work Technical Team Syed Sultan Uddin Ahmmed said, Bangladesh’s labour law does not explicitly mention social security for workers. This is done considering the situation. He noted the need to focus on rights instead of benevolence in case of social security. He said that although the National Provident Fund had taken the initiative earlier, it had not made any visible progress. He said that besides creating institutional structure at present, it is necessary to ensure dialogue and decision-making in this regard by ensuring accountability through dialogue between government, employers and workers.

In his speech, Nazrul Islam Khan said that COVID-19 has made it clear to all that our social security system is not capable of providing protection in times of crisis. “We are currently going through a transition period,” he said. He emphasized the need to keep the trade union movement alive to keep the country’s agriculture, industry and economy alive. “We all need to work together to move forward with the positive initiatives taken by international brand buyers at the call of ILO Director General Guy Ryder,” he said.

He added that there would be irreparable damage if the protection of working people, who produce and keep industry and society alive, was not ensured. In the current situation, many workers have been laid off. For that we need to identify the flaws in the system. The lack of coordination must be reduced. He also said the reverse of the trend of going from village to town and from city to abroad is now becoming apparent. In case of danger, he needs to have minimum social security through which he can survive. It is necessary to determine how such an infrastructure can be built. Only then is it possible to ensure the safety of workers in crisis.

In the speech of president, BILS Chairman Md. Habibur Rahman Shiraz said that the country and the nation are overcoming the crisis. While announcing the incentive, Hon’ble Prime Minister urged the employers not to lay off workers. The employer still laid off workers. Stating that strong action needs to be taken by the trade unions and SKOP in this regard, he said that the failure of the trade unions is also being observed due to the inability to properly create a forum for discussion. Referring to the nine-point demand of SKOP, he said the discussion on SKOP’s demand should be done in the right place discussion with government.

Presentation: COVID-19 and Protection of Workers: An Inclusive Sustainable Pathway