A pandemic of precarity: what COVID-19 revealed about Bangladeshi workers’ rights

A street food vendor prepares ingredients at their stall in Chittagong, Bangladesh.
Picture credit: Adam Cohn (2018). Used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

Precarity under the spotlight

The COVID-19 pandemic again shone the spotlight on the precarity of Bangladeshi export sector workers: garments workers lost their jobs or pay for work they had already done, as billion-dollar corporations cancelled orders in progress, and factories closed down. Multinational corporations robbed the Bangladesh industry and its workers of some USD 4 billion in the early phase of the pandemic.

But Bangladesh’s 4 million garments workers are not the only workers whose precarious working conditions were worsened by the pandemic. As part of the IDS Covid-19 Learning, Evidence and Research (CLEAR) programme, researchers at the BRAC Institute of Governance and Development undertook a scoping study of the impact of COVID-19 on workers in the garments industry, as well as in domestic road transport, street vending, and in the growing number of beauty salons. The scoping paper sets out what was already known about labour rights conditions in these sectors, as well as what is known about how the pandemic affected those conditions. The team conducted focus group discussions with workers and key informant interviews with NGOs, policymakers, and labour activists. They reviewed the existing evidence from published and grey sources, official reports and empirical research, as well as media reports.

The findings will surprise nobody who has followed the drama of garments workers’ rights struggles in Bangladesh. Labour rights were rarely respected before the pandemic. The (patchy) evidence unearthed by the study found that the pandemic led to further exploitation as workers were fired or let go without notice or back pay. But a couple of features of the study stood out for me, and pointed out what research is needed to tackle the chronic precarity of Bangladeshi workers.

Informality rules

One thing I noticed was how little progress has been made towards formalizing occupations and labour rights in Bangladesh. The garments industry is the flagship export-earning sector, and yet its estimated 4 million workers have little actual protection from labour laws which on paper govern practices of recruitment, dismissal, wages, and benefits.

From very different sectors, road transport workers (around 5 million men across the country) and beauty parlour workers (around 100,000, mostly women) are also officially formal sector employees. This means they should have contracts and statutory rights as workers. In practice, most workers are employed on casual terms, and as equally casually dispensed with when work is slow. The chronic informality of Bangladesh’s workers is reflected in the snail’s-pace rollout of the National Social Security Strategy, adopted at least in theory in 2015.

The situation is even more uncertain for street vendors, numbering around 400,000 in Dhaka alone, who have no legal recognition – or protective regulation. While providing low-cost food and drink that most people can afford on the go, street vendors are criticized for illegally occupying public space, tax avoidance and serving adulterated food. But when they were suddenly (again) forced off the streets during lockdown, they got no support to fill the gap in their livelihoods.

Collective action, collective protection?

One reason workers suffer from some precarity is that they are rarely organized or represented by recognized and effective trade unions. Garments workers’ struggles to realize their legal rights to freedom of association are well-known. But progress towards securing their rights to unionize has been slow, even after the Rana Plaza disaster so graphically highlighted the horrific effects of workers without the collective power to claim basic rights.

Nor are unions always the answer: road transport workers are more unionized than any other sector (around 35% of workers are members of unions), and yet they secured no specific support during the pandemic. This was so despite their sector being badly affected by the lockdown, and involving a high risk of infection for workers. Lacking formal contracts, many could not make claims on their employers. Employer-operated ‘welfare funds’ that workers paid into did not pay out when they needed welfare. Many transport workers moved onto other occupations, spent down their savings, or borrowed to get through the pandemic. Transport unions, the report noted, tend to be led by and for the interests of political leaders, rather than workers themselves.

Better work for Bangladeshis?

The Bangladesh government is committed to protecting and advancing its impressive economic and human development gains. But this scoping paper on how workers’ rights have been hit by COVID-19 indicates that Bangladesh has very far to go before its workers’ rights meet middle-income country standards.

Bangladesh’s much-vaunted economic growth rates and development successes now depend on workers’ rights being respected. Those rights are also essential for how successfully Bangladesh copes with crises like COVID-19 – and the food and economic crisis that has now followed in its wake.

A key starting point is the need for better, more systematic data on workers’ rights in Bangladesh. It is impossible to track progress – or assess adverse impacts – if we lack knowledge of people’s working conditions. Research will help raise policy awareness of the pandemic of precarity, and offer insights into what change is necessary.

Further reading

Naomi Hossain
Research Professor at the Accountability Research Center, American University; Research Fellow, IDS