The Financial Express

Role of trade unions for sustainable recovery of pandemic stricken labour market

| Updated: June 01, 2021 17:06:49

Role of trade unions for sustainable recovery of pandemic stricken labour market

Since the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic, the global economy has failed to cope up and is struggling to rebound. The pandemic has had a profound impact on the world of work in the first half of 2020, but, in Bangladesh, the recovery could be further delayed by a more threatening second wave.

The most vulnerable among the workers were both regular and casual workers, self-employed and small entrepreneurs of different sectors including MSMEs, construction, road, commerce, tourism, and other informal sectors. Public policies and actions taken by employers to tackle the challenges in the world of work have been largely influenced by the active participation of the trade unions across countries. Out of 133 countries, 108 have used "social dialogues" as a key instrument to address the concerns of the workers. Trade unions in Bangladesh have also played an active role in humanitarian issues. But, their role was underwhelming in the case of workers' rights and concerns during this crisis period.

PUBLIC POLICY RESPONSE TO ADDRESS THE AFFECTED SECTORS AND WORKERS: The most adverse impact of the pandemic in the world of work was the loss of jobs, with over 3 per cent jobs lost in the total labour force. By the end of 2021, the highest number of jobs lost would be in the SMEs and informal sectors, where the urban informal economy lost about 6.78 per cent of jobs. Women-led enterprises struggled more during the crisis period, forcing about 50 per cent of the enterprises to lay off 76-100 per cent of their workers. Based on the level of risks and severity of impact, the Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies (BILS) has categorised the sectors into three groups. The manufacturing, construction, transport, wholesale and retail trade, food and accommodation services and personal services sectors were included in the high risk and severity of impact group. Medium-high risk and severity of impact sectors include finance, domestic service, retail estate, and education. Low-risk and severity of impact sectors include agriculture, health, information and communication. About 69 per cent of the employed population in urban areas, where the share of the economy is 49 per cent, were at high risk.

Overall wages of the workers declined by 37 per cent, whereas in Dhaka the decline was 42 per cent and in Chittagong, it was 33 per cent. The decline in income of salaried workers was as high as 49 per cent due to a sharp decline in demand for those services. SMEs estimated a revenue loss of 66 per cent during the pandemic compared to the pre-pandemic period.

The head-count poverty rate increased from 20 per cent in FY2017 to 33 per cent in FY2020. A study indicated that if the income of workers in urban and rural areas declined by 80 per cent and 20 per cent, respectively, the poverty level is likely to increase by 9.1 per cent. This drove a population of 16.38 million to poverty anew in the second quarter of 2020.

Worker harassment declined marginally due to the closure of workplaces and limited movement of people during the first half of 2020. But certain types of violence increased, namely murder, rape and spousal violence among workers.

Out of the total stimulus package of Tk.126,853 crore, only Tk.44,973 crore (35.4 per cent) was allocated for workers, entrepreneurs of SMEs, low-income farmers and small traders, targeted marginal people, and unemployed and poor workers. But till October 2020, Tk. 25,457 crores had been disbursed, which covers only 56 per cent of the total allocated fund. As a result, a large pool of workers, self-employed, and small-scale entrepreneurs could not benefit from the package.

Female entrepreneurs received targeted support under the stimulus package of Tk.20,000 crore for small, cottage and medium-sized enterprises. A special fund for salaries of workers in export-oriented factories covered 65 per cent of the gross wages for four months in the factories affiliated with respective associations.

Around 25 per cent of the urban poor and 18 per cent of the rural poor received cash transfers. Overall, only 8 per cent of the country's total employed population benefitted from the stimulus package during the crisis period.

TRADE UNION RESPONSE TO THE CRISIS: Although trade unions have a crucial role to play in addressing the concerns of the workers, the majority of workers are not unionised in Bangladesh, where only 4.2 per cent of the total labour force are active trade union members. There are as many as 8551 trade unions, but most of them are of a very basic level. Only 35.2 per cent, 11.6 per cent, 6.9 per cent and 4.6 per cent of the total workers are involved in trade union-related activities in transportation, RMG, construction and jute sectors respectively. Moreover, the segmented structure of union activities failed to address the concerns of the un-unionised workers.

Various types of social dialogues were initiated in the forms of tripartite, bi-partite discussion and negotiation at national, sectoral and regional levels during the period of crisis. One major step by the workers and trade unions of different sectors was to put a 9-point demand to the Ministry of Labour and Employment (MoLE). These demands included reversing the decision to close the nationalised jute mills; modernising the state-owned sugar mills; making airline, railway and other nationalised companies people-centric; taking measures to reduce complicacy in payments for retrenched/laid-off workers; establishing a Covid-19 testing centre; establishing a social safety net for workers' health and social welfare.

However, the demands were made public in September 2020 -- 6 months after the first Covid-19 case was detected in the country. Had the proposal been placed to the government during the pandemic's early stage, say in April-May 2020, the crisis could have been tackled more smoothly.

A number of workers organisations like the IndustriAll Bangladesh Council (IBC) and the National Garment Workers Federation (NGWF) organised procession, blockade, and demonstrations favouring different demands of the workers, including prevention of worker harassment.

The Ministry of Labour and Employment (MoLE) formed 16 Crisis Management Committees (CMC) who were instructed to visit factories and mediate the irregularities that have been reported. After the second wave, the number of CMCs has increased to 23. Although the CMCs were active at the initial phase of the crisis period, they could not bring a solution to many problems due to a lack of communication with the owners or their representatives. It was found that most of the CMCs were not effectively functional during the crisis period. Trade union representatives were not included in the process of selecting potential recipients of public support, assisting the recipients and monitoring the function of distribution-related activities. The role of the CMCs was ineffective in the sense that they could not ensure assistance to the workers in need in most cases. After the second wave, there are initiatives to make the CMCs functional.

Around 30 per cent of Tk 1258 crore allocated for 50 lakh marginalised households remained undistributed due to a poor detection process, lack of a comprehensive database, weak administration and monitoring.

The Bangladesh Employers Federation (BEF), BGMEA, and BKMEA encouraged their member enterprises to take positive measures by not laying off workers, paying salaries on time etc. Employers of the garments sector have been a major partner in implementing the European Union's cash support of Tk 3000 per unemployed worker per month for three months. However, the process has been stalled due to problem in detecting unemployed workers.

A number of sections under the Labour Act, which do not allow the workers to organise and protest any unlawful activity, need to be amended. Moreover, the sections on "unlawful activities or disorderly activities" need to be defined specifically.

NATIONAL POLICIES ON EMPLOYMENT, GENDER AND SOCIAL SAFETY NET AND THE ROLE OF TRADE UNIONS: In the formulation of a trade union policy, employment, gender and social security issues must be addressed. Based on that, the trade unions should prioritise activities and social dialogues more effectively.

A major challenge for the National Jobs Strategy is to address the huge amount of Covid-19 induced unemployment. The trade unions need to customise their operations in accordance with the strategy.

The 8th five-year plan aims to generate employment, prepare for the 4th Industrial Revolution, enhance the role of the service sector, and formulate a gender strategy. The 8th FYP also proposes strategies for improving incentives for boosting private investment and increasing public sector investment. Trade unions should focus on the strategies highlighted in the 8th FYP and prepare their operational strategies to ensure effective engagement with the concerned ministries, departments and the private sector in undertaking targeted measures.

The pandemic exposed that the current social security programmes are inadequate to meet the needs of different target groups. The National Social Security Strategy provides five key strategies, namely: consolidating a lifecycle system of social security, social security for the socially excluded groups, consolidating food transfer programmes, consolidating special programmes and small schemes, and strengthening resilience in the face of covariate shocks. Trade unions need to work closely with the government to implement these strategies and to make the measures legally binding. The unions could also formulate their strategies in accordance with the social safety net programmes that match the needs of the workers and their families.

TRADE UNION POLICY STRATEGIES: Labour institutions and instruments should take initiatives beyond 'business as usual' initiatives to handle the unforeseeable challenges. Traditional strategies of organising, bargaining and regulation would not be sufficient in these regards. Trade unions should not only focus on collective bargaining as the means to address the decent work deficit; rather, they should combine their activities with other advocacy tools for policy reforms at the national and international levels. Better tax regulations, greater transparency and public reporting requirements, and state protection of workers alongside the pursuit of traditional unions strategies of organising, collective bargaining, information and consultation can be highly effective tools to tackle future crises. Signing transnational framework agreements (TFAs) to promote labour rights could ensure better functioning if national-level regulations are weakly enforced.

In Bangladesh, workers across all economic activities have been very affected due to the Covid pandemic. The previously mentioned high risk and severity impact sectors are predominantly labour-intensive. An overwhelming number of workers working in these sectors is unorganised who are not a part of any trade union-related activities. With the help of rebounding and resilience measures, a large section of these workers has been able to cope with their employment and income-related distress. However, the recovery rate was greatly uneven among informal workers, self-employed, and SMEs. Moreover, the second wave of Covid-19 is likely to delay the recovery of these sectors. Thus, the trade union policy strategy should focus on the world of work, with a focus on both the organised and unorganised workers.

The trade unions should set their strategies on three areas: 1) social dialogues in addressing short term challenges; 2) social dialogues addressing medium/long term challenges; 3) strengthening the social dialogues mechanism across different sectors. They should also work with the Ministry of Labour and Employment as well as the International Labour Organisation to make their operations more functional and effective.

Different tripartite discussions and negotiations that have been undertaken during this crisis period resulted in limited successes in favour of the workers and the MSMEs regarding coping with the risks and rebounding and recovery from the crisis. The health and safety of the workers are still in a vulnerable state in the second wave of the pandemic. It is imperative for trade unions to lead tripartite discussions with the officials from the MoLE for proper monitoring and enforcement of OSH protocol. Trade unions should also advocate on behalf of the affected youth, female, disabled and marginal groups to concerned ministries.

Trade unions should work with the government to prioritise the interest and needs of workers. It is essential to develop an innovative, effective and transparent mechanism for the distribution of cash support to the affected workers. Unions should also lead negotiations regarding migrant support by lobbying for bilateral agreements with host countries.

[This op-ed provides a summary of the key findings of the study titled "Impact of Covid-19 on the Labour Market: Policy Proposals for Trade Union on Employment, Gender and Social Security for Sustainable Recovery"

conducted by CPD and BILS.]

Dr Khondaker Golam Moazzem, research director, CPD. [email protected]

Taslima Taznur, former programme associate, CPD


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