ActionAid Bangladesh and Dhaka Tribune jointly organized a roundtable titled “Decent work for young people: Employers’ compliance and workers’ rights.” This is a stepping stone for a series of collaborative activities between the two organizations, most of which are going to focus on young people.
The dialogue was chaired by Farah Kabir, country director of ActionAid Bangladesh, and moderated by its manager Nazmul Ahsan. Through these programs, we plan on touching upon the young people’s quality of life and work environment, technical and vocational education.
Bangladesh is a small country for a population of 165 million, and in this day and age, we don’t want a modern-day slavery; we want decent work opportunities for all.
The government must develop a policy for this sector, and fully implement it. We are having changes and improvements in laws, but they are not being implemented; the labour law is one such example. In almost every facet of the informal sector, we have an inordinate amount of children workers with no access to safety. In order to regulate these, there is no room for compromise, and every stakeholder needs to come under one roof to help bring this about. The truth is, the breadth of the informal sector will only increase – Foodpanda and Uber are prime examples. On one hand, we need the facilities offered by these alternative development companies, but at the same time, we need them to be properly regulated.
I see that we have definite skill mismatch issues. What our young people are being taught and what the employers require in the job description has a huge gap that needs to be bridged.
Just as the daily wage has become a common phenomenon, the same needs to happen with an hourly wage. Furthermore, whether the hourly wages are maintained needs to be monitored.
In our country, not many people get jobs in the formal sector, and the informal sector is much larger than its counterpart. And in the informal sector, often the employees are deprived of a number of things – starting with the appointment letter.
On the other hand, employers have certain responsibilities as well. In our country, a small percentage of workforce works in the public sector; the rest works in the private sector, which is not entirely institutionalized. The export-oriented sectors are better with compliance issues, when compared to sectors operating on national scale. Here our governance system needs to come into play to see how much compliance we need and can actually do without.
Our nation has a two-fold Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) that covers economic development and decent work establishment. We may be making progress towards economic development, but we are not certain how much progress we are making in the field of decent work. Without a decent work environment, economic development cannot be made sustainable in the long run.
If we look at Bangladesh Labour Act, 2006, there’s a provision for apprenticeship programs where young people can gather experience. If employers from the private sector take up this responsibility and create a space for recruitment, we can solve the problem of young people not being able to gain the necessary initial experience.
The biggest problem I am facing as a fresh graduate is, wherever I apply to, be it the formal or the informal sector, I am being asked to provide two to three years’ job experience. But as a fresh graduate, I need to be given the opportunity to start working somewhere and gather experience in the first place. We need a solution and a way to move forward beyond this dilemma.
I represent an organization where we get the opportunity to work with both students and employers. Employers usually say vacancies are available, but we don’t find competent employees to fill those vacancies. The employers are happy keeping their vacancies intact, instead of taking in incompetent human resource in that position. Students, on the other hand, say they can’t get jobs after graduation.
Our education systems do not provide adequate skill development, which is why when students enter the job market after graduation, they’re not competent enough for employers to hire them. That’s why, at BYLC, we try to train our students with the training that is necessary to get the job, as well as to create a connection with the employers. These students won’t become fully competent overnight; what we can do is to give them basic training to make them partially competent. Employers shouldn’t expect to only reap the benefits and that the education system should train them in everything; the employers should take some responsibility for training them as well.
I work in a company as a basic electrician. Others like me can get jobs under a contract if it’s not full-time employment. We start work at 9am and finish at 5pm. We have no job security, no fixed wages; we don’t even have an appointment letter, uniform or identity card. We don’t have access to any benefits – no health benefits or insurance. If we get in an accident, the company does not take liability; it doesn’t see to our treatment, nor pay for damage. So, basically, I go in the morning, sign in on the master log, and leave at 5pm. We don’t have a choice, because if we don’t work, the next day I won’t have food on the table. I didn’t get any formal training, certification or licence as an electrician. There is no way another employer can identify me as an available electrician. We don’t know how to get recognized or certified for our skills.
I believe the government needs to create laws to help us in this regard. We want the labour law to include workers like us, so we get the remuneration and benefits we deserve.
It would help us a lot if the government could give us certiifcates for the work we do, because it is often required if we go for a job somewhere. If we can’t find work because we don’t have a licence, then we can’t survive in this sector. Furthermore, there is a matter of safety involved in our line of work, but if we mention it, then the employers become unwilling to give us jobs since safety measures increase the expenses. For example, it’s standard procedure to use a safety jacket to come down from the fifth floor of a building to the second floor. But for a job that would otherwise cost Tk8,000 goes up to Tk30,000 if we include the safety measures, and we won’t work on those terms. It should be the company’s responsibility to provide us with necessary safety measures, because the value of lives is more important than cost-effectiveness.
I work with autism and disability. When we discuss decent work opportunity for young people, it is worth mentioning that people with autism and disability deserve an opportunity for decent work as well. While these opportunities are available internationally, and we have laws ensuring it, we don’t yet have anything of the sort locally.
We do a lot of research on the informal sector, primarily focusing on women in the garment sector and ones who work as household help. Women are also working in construction and beauty salons. With regard to decent work, throughout the entire informal sector, women are in a sensitive situation. While women are getting opportunities to work, the are primarily employed in basic entry level. The RMG sector is a prime example of that: we have found that there are next to no female managers, supervisors or line chiefs there. These roles generally entail harsh behaviour and reprimands in order to achieve production goals, and women are apparently not capable of doing that. A prevalent lack of confidence among women also plays into this perspective.
Our research study shows contractors don’t receive any certification even after working for years, when our labour law states that contractors should receive a licence.
What factory owners often do is, they hire a middle manager to recruit all the required factory workers. These workers get hired on contracts, and they don’t receive any benefits. Contractors are also often prevented from getting into trade unions. To avoid the risk of disclosure during audits, contractors are given ID cards that don’t work and salary sheets that have not been properly processed. These issued need to be addressed and monitored so employers cannot take advantage of their workers.
From our work to establish decent work environment in the informal sector, we learnt a few things. For one, employers need to be motivated to establish decent work. To create motivation, they need to be able to clearly picture positive changes in small incremental improvements. Expecting too big a change in one go is likely to scare them off. Other things that motivate them are pressure from buyers, law enforcement and a clear business incentive.
The biggest lesson we have learnt is to start with low hanging fruits, motivate employers to bring about the improvement and acknowledge the change once it happens as an achievement worthy of recognition.
We started our small enterprise training program for the informal sector in 2012, beginning with the local grocery markets. People get employed in this sector under a contract. We train them not only in occupational and technical skills, but also in decent work knowledge building. This is not sufficient, however, because the practice of decent work needs to be present in the sector that we are training people in. There is currently no way to enforce decent work environment; the best we can do is encourage to do so. Having said so, there is a lot to be done in this sector, such as providing clean water, personal protective equipment, a separate bathroom for women, etc. Our long-term aim with this training is to see that people complete the training process, get a job and eventually open up their own business. Additionally, through our program, we provide loans to small enterprises, which have sometimes resulted in a 54% increase in profitability after decent work practices were enforced in their occupational environment.
There is a huge difference between the young people from an urban setting versus those from a rural one. We are in contact with 40,000 such young people, most of whom have not received proper education or access to information. When they look for work, they go searching in Khulna, the Rampal power station, the Padma Bridge project, or hotel resorts in the neighbouring areas. They need training to be competent at these jobs.
Becoming an entrepreneur becomes even more difficult with the necessity of lobbying, acquiring capital and getting loans. We need a much easier access to information for these young people. The union digital centres have major issues and need to be addressed urgently.
If the informal sector is sufficiently pressed by the government and other stakeholders to ensure training in such a way as to match job requirements, only then will we see significant improvement in work environment and future prospects of these young people.
As things stand, it’s not possible to create a trade union in this sector. The latest minimum wage that was announced in 2009, which was Tk3,000, has not been implemented yet. But even Tk3,000 is not sufficient for anyone’s livelihood. The people in informal sectors are often straight off the boat and know next to nothing about their rights and policies. We are trying to build awareness in these areas.
The government said they don’t have sufficient manpower to manage this properly, but whatever manpower the government does have, if we could utilize that to create a sense of belongingness among the workers, it would take our progress forward by leaps and bounds.
With people who are getting training, there is a gap between their training and the industry. We call this a skill gap; to bridge this gap, the training should be industry-oriented. We need to find out what kind of workforce the industries exactly need, analyze that, and design the training courses accordingly.
Bangladesh has been working on technical education, to establish national, technical, vocational qualification framework (NTVQF) and implementing them. If we can implement that, we can reduce the skill gap. Internationally, NTVQF has been fully established with levels one to four. I recently attended a large employers’ forum in Chittagong, where a lot of people didn’t even know of NTVQF.
Additionally, to enforce decent work, we have to assess the industries. If we look at industrial policies, we will see that they are categorized as green, red and orange. There needs to be far stricter monitoring and supervision of their operations by the government. To ensure that, we need to see how much manpower is required to do so properly, and how much the government currently has.
Our experience shows that 70% of our young people drop out before completing Class XII. NGOs and the government have scope to work here; the most hopeful aspect is that the government and the NGOs don’t differ much in terms of thinking and planning. We have seen that a2i has worked with various ministries to urbanize rural areas and develop the strength of the young people, so when we work in the development sector, we bring these to the forefront as well.
As far as decent work is concerned, the private sector has to ensure whether they are providing it, but the issue is, our private sector believes that they need to keep a steady flow of workers into their establishment. People are brought in mostly based on references by family members or friends, they’re given apprenticeship which has next to no training and often limited to just food and shelter, and then they are put to work with no talk about minimum wage. These people can be taken advantage of because they have no certification. The government has given us an opportunity through RPL (Recognition of Prior Learning) given by the Bangladesh Technical Education Board. It’s also inexpensive – with Tk1,500, we can ensure a person’s certification.
The media could publish how many people acquire the RPL certificate at the beginning of every year, and we can commence an education system through which people will be getting certified. This certificate can open up new options for workers, who can even use it to plan to work abroad. However, this certificate needs to be based upon competence, and the competency-based education needs to be periodically revised to match the industry demands.
As a nation, we continue to do things traditionally, but if we think about our young people, we are thinking about our future. It’s evident that the economy is predominantly young, and in the informal sector, we have a lot of women working.
We need to improve the scope of negotiation between employers and workers in the informal sector. In the formal sector, we have people with certificates which boost their mental strength. But people working in the informal sector have nothing of the sort to show for their many skills and years of experience. As a result, from the trade union we are trying to create organizations. In the past 20 years, we have had no labour movement in the informal sector, because the sector is mostly controlled by the employers.
Given the direction in which we are going, NGOs, the media and trade unions need to come together to resolve the core problems. For example, we take up an informal sector issue and go on a movement, while a newspaper covers it and an NGO produces a research paper on it. Enriched, thus, by the media coverage and NGO research study, we can speak on behalf of the workers in the informal sector.
I work primarily with the private sector. Of the two things I want to talk about, the first is, with regard to young people, whether they have job opportunities and whether they are able to exercise their rights in the work environment. For anyone seeking to get into employment, we have a provision for an internship, through which a fresher can gain experience in their relevant sector.
On the other hand, some people wait years on end for a particular position to open up and ignore many other job opportunities available to them right then. This, in my opinion, is not the optimal way to go about it. If we could focus on taking the job we can get, as opposed to indefinitely waiting for the one job we have set our hearts on, we can effectively avoid the dilemma of freshers not finding jobs without prior work experience.
Furthermore, looking at admission trends, we see the majority of students enrolling in BBA programs. These students and their guardians are not aware of what kind of demand there is for which kind of jobs, so they are unable to make an informed decision. There is a huge gap between what the job market needs, and what kind of education our young people are choosing to focus on.
Furthermore, our government does not have any database that tracks how many people are entering the job market, and how many jobs are available in particular secto
We started our journey with core education, which included teaching, learning environment, teacher empowerment, ICT education, etc. We observed two outcomes: one was completing the cycle, and the other was dropping out. We needed to understand how to assist people who were dropping out, and also determine how to further develop the skills of those who finished the cycle. Upon learning that 87% of the workforce was working in the informal sector, we changed our goal to include skills along with core education. Otherwise, we’d fail to match education with required skills to job opportunities. Subsequently, a2i took up young people’s skill development program, which is a six-month program composed entirely of hands-on training. This informal apprenticeship program was run in 135 upazilas. It’s worth mentioning that doors are open from both the government and a2i for collaboration with the aim of taking this industry forward and establishing decent work.
Currently, the National Association of Small and Cottage Industries of Bangladesh (NASCIB) is collaboratively working with ActionAid, Swisscontact and International Labour Organisation (ILO). Recently, we have been seeing a lot of discussion on the informal sector in Bangladesh, and even the government is trying to figure out how to develop this sector. But we don’t have a policy that applies to this sector, and from the ISISC, we were the first to request the a policy for this sector. The secretary of the Ministry of Industries has helped to create a committee, and we have created a draft of the policy. Currently, we’re working with ActionAid to see how we can improve certain areas of the policy.
The four pillars of decent work are: (a) Job opportunities to produce earnings; (b) Safe workplaces; (c) workplaces with provisions for social dialogue; and (d) work-life balance. I believe we need to focus on other areas as much as we have been focusing on just employment creation. We have plans to create job opportunities for 30 million people by 2030, but I doubt so many people will come into the economy. Currently, it’s around 1.3-1.4 million.
We need to start thinking about the lack of decent work available to women, which is reducing their participation in the workforce. For women, they start working and after a while, they have nowhere to rise in the hierarchy chain, and eventually drop out.
Furthermore, when people are going abroad to work, upon returning, instead of working in the same sector, they either plan on leaving for abroad again or pick a job in a different sector, because there is little scope for building a career path. We have improved a lot regarding workers’ safety in the garment industry, but we have not been able to replicate it in other industries. This requirement has not been incorporated into our execution plans. That will help establish decent work across industries.
Our past experience has shown that the employers’ attitude is predominantly to take advantage of any situation in order to make more profit. But for the sake of the development of our own art and culture, they need to work for their employees’ benefits. As far as decent work is concerned, with all the other groups coming forward, my opinion is that the owners and employers need to come forward the most. Because it is the owners that pay the wages and are supposed to provide job security.
We are receiving four to five dead bodies of migrant workers every day; the reason is simply the lack of safe work environment. These workers don’t even have a career path to look forward to upon returning.
To address these and many other similar issues, we need to jointly create a set of policies that look after the needs of every stakeholder, especially the workers and not just the employers. Employers need to take up an enduring mindset and come forward to ensure decent work, which helps to empower the working class with proper working documents, wages, and necessary benefits. We also need to update our curriculum to make them more connected to job requirements.