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Dhaka Tribune

OP-ED: Serve or starve?

Inequality is getting worse in the era of Covid-19

Update : 21 Jun 2020, 06:09 PM

It has been the most crucial question for most of the informal waste and sanitation workers during this Covid-19 pandemic. A job that deals with filth does not provide these workers with secured workers’ benefits, and social protection, let alone social dignity. 

The ongoing pandemic has been the hardest hit to these groups who are most at risk of losing their jobs and incomes. 

As the discovery of vaccines is yet to come, maintaining physical distance, avoiding large crowds, practicing hygiene, and staying home has been the only solution to survive Covid-19. 

But unfortunately, social and physical distancing is a privilege. If you are being able to maintain social separation, it means, you have a house. More specifically, you have a large enough house which allows you to practice social distancing. 

It means you have access to the free flow of running water. Disinfectants like soap and hand sanitizers are a privilege as well, which means you can buy them. And most importantly, lockdown is a huge privilege which means you can afford to stay at home. 

The lowest-income informal workers belong to the bottom of the list of those who can afford these privileges. Here the dilemma of dying from hunger or from the virus becomes all-too-real. Living in arm-in-arm slums, doing jobs of emptying septic tanks and waste collection, the waste and sanitation workers can only dream of pursuing these luxuries. 

Regrettably, we are talking about a big number of these people. In 2020, over 2 billion workers (all people in employment: employees, independent workers with or without employees, and contributing family workers) are making their livings in the informal economy. This is 62% of all those working worldwide.

Informal employment represents 90% of total employment in low-income countries, 67% in middle-income countries, and 18% in high-income countries. Women are often in more vulnerable situations than their male counterparts with more exposure to informality in low and lower-middle-income countries. 

The particular risks that are associated with Covid-19 are aggravating the existing occupational health and safety risks of these poor workers in the informal economy. Unfortunately, most of them are the least priority to be provided with appropriate safety gear. Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) is still a far cry to them. 

This disproportionate and unprotected medical care coupled with marginal payment is leading the whole Covid-19 situation for the workers to be overwhelming and overcrowding to survive. 

With long-lasting effects on the economy and slower and uneven recovery rate, the crisis is going to have an effect on almost all classes of earning population, but the low-income communities in low- and lower-middle-income countries will face the cruelest consequences from some other viewpoints. 

In the absence of income replacement, even many formal micro-business owners would also be pushed into informality for making a living. The sudden shutting down of schools and other educational institutions is going to affect the existing discriminated educational system, which is reluctant towards the children of the informal sector. 

Low investments by the investors, safety savings by the consumers, and resulting lower demands, production and employment, and finally further expansion of the informal sector are all going to damage the economic fabric which will be hard to stitch. 

So, in this situation, immediate responses combined with a multi-track strategy must be followed to support these essential workers.

Taking necessary safeguards to reduce the exposure of workers and their families to the risks of contagion by providing safety equipment, ensuring the infected ones to have access to proper health care, offering income and food support to individuals and their families are some immediate responses to compensate the loss and damage. 

As general and long-term considerations, customized policy interventions must be introduced to the heterogeneity, circumstances, diverse characteristics, and needs of the informal sector. 

The current critical situation offers the opportunity to build trust and foster inclusive and more responsive social dialogues to the specific needs of the informal economy operators that have been neglected for centuries. 

Labour market and the recruiting agencies -- government (municipalities, city corporations, hospitals), semi-government, private agencies, and employers’ organizations are the key players in crafting, designing, and implementing equitable responses and delivering quality services. 

Unfortunately, a pandemic is being needed to make us realize that it is time to build a universal occupational health and social protection system, facilitate the transition to formality, and find the mechanism to limit the expansion of the informal sector.

Shooha Tabil is a freelance contributor.

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