THE government has taken many measures since the middle of March, when the global outbreak of the new coronavirus infection was declared a pandemic. The measures include a five-day general holiday beginning March 26, unofficially running to 10 days. But the holiday was announced without any specific measures to ensure the economic survival of workers in the informal sector. Vulnerable groups in urban areas that include rickshaw-pullers, hawkers, vendors, transport workers, day labourers and ride-sharing service providers have abruptly been left without work. Other than the announcement of subsidised rice for the rural poor and some aid, no concrete steps have been taken for labourers in the informal sector. Rickshaw pullers report that they find it difficult to earn even a fourth of their regular daily income of Tk 1,000 during the holiday. Considering that four-fifths of the total labour force is engaged in the informal sector, economists find a poor or almost no government support for this group irresponsible.
Economists in March warned the government that slowdown in business activities would hit hard the vulnerable groups in cities. The urban poor would be struggling to survive unless relief plans are taken in time. Rickshaw pullers, hawkers, vendors and others living on the threshold of poverty cannot afford to leave urban areas and access the financial and food assistance that the government has announced under the vulnerable group feeding programme. Although the government has repeatedly talked of a programme to financially assist the urban poor to return home, it is unclear whether any services have so far been provided at all. Worker’s health safety in the formal sectors has also not been addressed as the government has left the production lines of the apparel industries outside the purview of the general holiday. The apparel exporters’ association on Saturday recommended that its members could close down factories to stop any contagion; but it has so done keeping to Section 16 of the labour law which allows the management to withhold some of worker’s financial benefits. The government’s policy initiative taken so far appears to be targeted towards the privileged class; the need of the people living on the threshold of poverty is ignored. Experts are, therefore, not wrong when they say that the poverty reduction rate would be seriously affected unless the government takes early measures to support the working class.
It is time that the government immediately heeded recommendations of economists and introduced food rations, cash assistance and rent freeze for labourers in the informal and formal sectors. In order to ensure that people dependent on daily earning in cities do not go without food, city authorities must consider opening relief distribution centres keeping to coronavirus prevention strategies.
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