We cannot simply return to the same jobs that we have lost
It is not news that the coronavirus is having a devastating impact on livelihoods. “1.6 billion workers in the informal economy -- that is nearly half of the global workforce -- stand in immediate danger of having their livelihoods destroyed,” according to the International Labour Organization. Bangladesh is obviously not exempt from the mass loss of livelihood during the epidemic.
Fear of further job losses, and the suffering of the millions of newly unemployed, have contributed to governments rushing to reopen their cities and countries despite the potentially devastating risk to health and life.
It is absolutely vital that governments provide support to those whose livelihoods have been threatened or destroyed. It is also vital that governments ensure employment opportunities. What is not vital is that we simply return to the same jobs that we have lost.
Some parts of the economy would be better off being shed, regardless of the short-term pain that would cause. In particular, two types of industry, and hence employment, should be considered ripe for abandonment.
The first category is industries that are extremely destructive towards nature or the environment, or that contribute significantly to greenhouse gas emissions. Think cruise ships. Think private airlines. Think destructive, extractive industries and highly-polluting factories.
The second category is industries that, while providing employment, do not pay a living wage, do not offer decent working conditions, and do contribute significantly to income inequality. Many of those industries, meanwhile, produce products that we do not need, and in fact, would be better off without: things like fast food, plastic toys, and ludicrously cheap and poor quality clothing.
But people need jobs. What is to be done about that?
Governments around the world -- Bangladesh is no exception -- heavily subsidize polluting industries which often provide menial, miserable jobs. Governments offer tax holidays to big corporations. They offer heavily subsidized land, electricity, and water.
They fail to charge for environmental damage or to insist on pollution reduction measures. They allow companies to underpay workers and undercut efforts by employees to organize for higher wages or better working conditions. They do all this largely, they claim, for the sake of creating jobs.
If it is so important for governments to invest in job creation, why not bypass the polluting corporations and instead invest in job creation at the local level, jobs that would be better for the environment -- even helping restore the environment, rather than further polluting it -- and that would pay a decent wage while also providing other benefits to workers?
How could governments afford to do so? Well, they are already subsidizing the fossil fuel industry to the tune of $5.2 trillion a year. Surely that money would be better spent in subsidizing individuals or small businesses that are engaged in healthy practices.
Rather than subsidize fossil fuel, which threatens our very future on this planet, governments could subsidize green jobs that are also good for workers, things like growing chemical-free fruits and vegetables, repairing footpaths, building cycling infrastructure, and upgrading and maintaining parks and other public spaces.
Green jobs could include supporting more teachers and tutors so as to reduce the burden on families, while incorporating love of the environment and nature into the curriculum. Green jobs could include hiring more community health workers who would be an invaluable resource as we continue to address the coronavirus and prepare for possible future pandemics.
The hundreds of millions of people who have already lost their jobs, or are experiencing a huge dip in wages, need government support. The 1.6 billion workers whose livelihoods are threatened need government support.
The billionaires and multi-millionaires who have contributed to global inequality, and continue to benefit from it, do not need government support. It is time to stop subsidizing the wealthiest, the polluters, and those with the worst labour conditions. It is time instead to support local people engaged in important work that can help to rebuild our communities, our society, and our nation in a way that would be infinitely better than the wreckage we have left behind.
Debra Efroymson is Executive Director of Institute of Well-being (Bangladesh).