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Dhaka Tribune

Covid-19: What will happen to workers in non-RMG sectors?

Like the export-oriented industries, a stimulus package must be prepared for workers in other sectors to tackle the impact of the global pandemic, experts say

Update : 28 Mar 2020, 12:39 AM

As the global pandemic of Covid-19 continues to spread, countries all around the world are facing a major blow to their economies, and Bangladesh is no exception. 

More than 50 sectors including tourism, hospitality and food services in the country have been hit hard by the pandemic. The worst impact will be suffered by the workers in these sectors, as they will lose their income stream. 

In order to curb the spread of the extremely contagious disease, Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) has already moved to temporarily shut down the ready-made garment (RMG) factories in the country. 

The RMG sector is the largest export-oriented industry in Bangladesh, employing nearly 4.5 million people.

If the current trend of the pandemic continues, experts fear that the economy will come to a standstill in two months. The quality of life will change for workers in all sectors except agriculture. About 45 million workers in Dhaka and other cities will become unemployed. 

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, in her address to the nation on Wednesday, announced a Tk5,000 crore stimulus package in order to pay salaries and wages to the employees and workers in the country’s export-oriented industries.

The stimulus package will bring some relief to the workers in RMG and other export-oriented industries, the experts say, adding that a similar fund must be mobilized for workers in other sectors too.

According to the Export Promotion Bureau (EPB), the country’s major export-oriented industries are RMG, leather and leather products, frozen fish, specialized textile, jute and jute products, agricultural product, tea, medicine, vegetables, handicraft and tobacco. 

In addition, there are more than 100 kinds of products – including beef offal, furniture, bicycles, ships, dry food, spectacle frames, ceramic products, silk, blood tubing sets, active pharmaceutical ingredients, glass, spices, rubber, construction material, etc – that Bangladesh exports to other countries. 

For several of these products, the government pay up to 20% subsidies. 

According to EPB data, about 83% of the total export earnings come from the RMG products. Owners of RMG factories say about 80-90% workers in all of the export-oriented industries in the country are RMG workers. 

‘We need to think about the other workers’

Applauding the government’s initiative to support the export-oriented industries, Dr Ahsan H Mansur, executive director of non-governmental research body the Policy Research Institute (PRI), reminded that workers in other sectors deserve the same support. 

“Those who were working in the tourism sector, in hotels and restaurants, have become unemployed. So have those who work in public bus services,” he told Bangla Tribune. 

He further commented that the RMG workers received the stimulus because they are organized, and the others didn’t because they are not. 

“But the government must take care of everyone,” he added. 

“There are a lot more workers in other sectors than the RMG sector. They must be taken into account. Those who live in the villages and have the VGF cards, even they will have some support: they will be able to buy rice at Tk10 per kg, and receive other relief items. But the workers who are involved in the informal sector will be hit hard,” Dr Mansur said. 

“A much bigger fund – bigger than the Tk5,000-crore stimulus package for the export-oriented industries – needs to be mobilized for the other sectors. If necessary, the government should borrow money from the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) for this,” he stressed. 

Former BGMEA president Abdul Salam Murshedy said 80-90% of the Tk5,000 crore stimulus package would be spent after the RMG workers. 

“But there should be a bigger stimulus package for workers in other sectors,” he told Bangla Tribune. 

“There should be a mechanism to take care of each and every worker in the coming days,” he said. “An initiative must be taken so that workers in all industries and sectors can rest easy till Eid-ul-Azha, or July.”

For that, a fund of Tk10,000 crore can be mobilized by taking loans from the World Bank and the IMF, he added. 

Dr Mansur said of the total labour force in Bangladesh, around 90% are involved in informal jobs. 

“Around 2-2.5 million people work in hotels and restaurants. At least 35-40 million people work in more than 100 sectors, including aviation, tourism, and transport services,” he added. 

The government can collect information on these workers, he commented. 

“The global economy is taking a blow due to the coronavirus pandemic, and Bangladesh will feel the impact, too, in one-and-a-half to two months,” Dr Mansur said. 

‘Everyone will be taken care of’

According to the latest survey of Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, more than 60 million people make up the country’s labour force, working in more than 100 sectors. 

Among them, around 4.5 million work in the RMG sector. 

However, sources in the export sector say around 20 million people work in the export-oriented industries.  

This correspondent found that, among 102 formal industries, 62 don’t have official minimum wage system. Those that do, don’t follow the wage board properly. 

Wages and workers’ rights in the informal sectors are always neglected. 

When asked about supporting workers in non-export-oriented industries, Planning Minister MA Mannan said: “The bigger fund we have, the better. But we will also have to see if we can afford it. 

He said it’s easier to work with RMG workers as they are organized and enlisted. “But the government will also make sure that workers in other industries aren’t deprived of support.” 

The workers who are not organized, if they return to their village homes, they will receive support through their upazila parishad chairpersons, the planning minister said. 

“Not a single worker will have to suffer hunger,” he said. “The plans will become clear in 10-12 days.” 

Dr Khondaker Golam Moazzem, researcher at Dhaka-based think tank Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), said: “A fund for small and medium entrepreneurs is urgent. Wages of workers in the small and medium enterprises must be taken into consideration.”

Of the total labour force in the country, around 24 million work in agriculture, Dr Moazzem said. 

“The agriculture sector won’t face any problem. But the workers in other industries and sectors will need the government’s assistance,” he added.

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