At least 729 workers lost their lives in workplace accidents or tortures across the country last year, down from 1,200 in the previous year, according to the Bangladesh Institute on Labour Studies (BILS).
In one year, the number of deaths in the workplace has been reduced by 40%, while the number of injured in accidents and the number of cases of torture have reduced by 36% and 54%, respectively.
This is the only index that has seen progress in the country's labour market since the beginning of the novel coronavirus pandemic.
People concerned, however, think the fall in numbers of workplace deaths, injuries and tortures is a result of the closure of most factories during the pandemic-induced nationwide shutdown. Nonetheless, it is the workers who suffered the most due to the closure of industries as their income decreased.
According to a recent report by the Asian Development Bank (ADB), a one-day lockdown reduces wage earnings of workers in Bangladesh by $64 million or over Tk542 crore. As such, the income of day labourers decreased by about Tk36,000 crore in the 66-day lockdown last year.
Even though the loss is less than 1.5% of the GDP, the per capita income of 83.32 lakh day labourers decreased by about Tk43,000 due to the lockdown.
Workers' leaders said the lockdown has cut off the income of workers in the construction sector, transport sector, hotels, restaurants and garages. More than 5 crore workers of the informal sector are now living a miserable life with their families.
Due to the second wave of the coronavirus infection, restrictions on various sectors of the economy have been going on again for almost one month. As a result, it has become impossible to provide food for the working-class of people.
Amid this harsh reality, like the rest of the world, May Day or the International Workers' Day is being observed in Bangladesh.
May Day commemorates the historic uprising of working people in Chicago, USA.
On 1 May 1886, 10 workers were killed when police opened fire on a demonstration in Chicago near Haymarket Square demanding an eight-hour working day instead of a 12-hour shift. On the height of agitation, the authorities had to accept the workers' demand and the eight-hour day was introduced universally.
On 14 July 1889, an international workers' rally in Paris declared 1 May as the International Workers' Solidarity Day in recognition of the Chicago workers' sacrifice and achievement and the day has been observed globally since 1890.
Labour leaders said although May Day has been observed with the goal of ensuring workplace and workers' rights in mind, this is the first time that the issue of ensuring food for workers has been given greater importance.
According to various government and non-government reports, a large number of workers have been forced to reduce their food expenses for themselves and their family due to shrinking income. Excluding nutritious food, many of them are eating less expensive food.
The BILS report says out of 729 workers deaths in 2020, the highest 348 took place in the transport sector. The second highest number of 84 workers died in the construction sector and 67 workers – the third highest – died in the agricultural sector.
In 2019, among 1,200 workplace fatalities, the highest number of 516 took place in the transport sector, 134 in the construction sector and 116 in the agriculture sector that year.
In 2020, 433 workers were injured in accidents at their workplaces. In the previous year, the number was 695. Last year, 596 workers were tortured at workplaces. In 2019, the number was 1,292.
In 2020, 593 labour movements took place, of which 264 were in the readymade garments sector. In the previous year, the number of labour movements was 434. According to this count, workers' unrest increased last year.
The BILS report highlights the various risks facing workers in the construction sector, housework, shipbreaking and readymade garment industries in the coming days. The report also says that the crisis might escalate in the future as the government jute mills and some sugar mills are on the verge of closure.
It says that all the workers of about 200 sectors related to the real estate sector work on a daily basis. Most of the workers in this sector are now unemployed.
Based on its research conducted in different areas of the capital, the BILS says only 5% of domestic workers are going to work during the lockdown, while 35% of employers are in touch with their housemaids.
After the lifting of the lockdown, half of the housekeepers will be able to go back to work, the report says. It also finds that 55% of domestic workers are being abused in their families due to loss of income.
The ILO in its report on the impact of the coronavirus on garment workers and factories in Asia-Pacific region states that 43% of Bangladeshi garment factories in several months following the Covid-19 outbreak ran with half of the workers.
Around 20% of factories were in operation with 30-39% workers, while 117 garment factories were closed amid the pandemic, making 43,000 workers jobless.
The international labour organization (ILO) measures the labour standard of any country by employability, decent workplace, decent wage and right to organize, and Bangladesh ranked below the standard in all of the indicators even before the Covid-19 pandemic, said Dr Khondaker Golam Moazzem, research director of the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD).
He added that the labour standard degraded in many aspects due to the impact of Covid-19 in Bangladesh.
He said despite some progress in recent times, only 4.2% of the total labour force in the country are active trade union members and the scope of the unions are concentrated in RMG and some export-oriented sectors, while most of the workforce are out of coverage of any labour organisation.
He also mentioned that 85% of the workforces are engaged in the informal sector without having any job security in absence of any appointment letter. Any disaster leaves immediate impacts on this sector, he said, adding most of them became jobless due to Covid-19.
He further stated that more than two crore workers lost their jobs in the first wave of the pandemic and the second wave has started before the recovery from the damages caused by the first wave.
Due to reducing resilience by deploying savings, the jobless workers would be more affected this time compared to the previous shock, he argued.
He said the government should formulate some packages under its social safety net programmes targeting the jobless workers to maintain their livelihood.
He also opined that trade unions should play a stronger role in maintaining the employability of their members by having dialogues with the government and employers. They also have to organise some traditional programmes to ensure a decent workplace and to ensure wage and other benefits of the workers, he added.
Mushrefa Mishu, president of the Garment Workers Unity Forum said, "On 1 May 1886, workers in Chicago, USA, shed blood to press home their demand for an eight-hour workday. Workers in Bangladesh are still struggling for their rights."
The labour leader further added that the wages of Bangladesh's garment industry workers are lower compared to most countries in the world. "Even if there is a rule to pay double wages to workers if they work for over eight hours, no owner complies with this."
Mishu went on to say that workers' rights are discussed in a handful of sectors and there is no one to talk about people working in the informal sector. "Still a large number of workers are deprived of basic human rights. Due to the coronavirus, it has become difficult to provide food to the working class people, let alone realising their rights."
People changing profession amid pandemic
People of different classes and professions are changing their profession during the coronavirus crisis.
Many low-income and low-middle-income families have lost their jobs due to the pandemic. Some have left the capital for their village homes. And those who are still struggling to survive the economic crisis have entered new professions instead of the old ones. A joint study by the BIGD and PPRC finds that 41% of people were compelled to join low-skilled jobs.
Closure of six sugar mills leads 65,000 people to misery
The government's decision to close six mills has cast a shadow of darkness over the eyes of 60,000 sugarcane farmers, 5,000 workers and over 200 officials and employees.
No specific instructions have been given as to what will happen to the sugarcane around 60,000 listed sugarcane farmers have cultivated. As a result, sugarcane farmers are also in extreme uncertainty.
Meanwhile, about 51,000 workers, including 25,000 permanent ones, have become unemployed due to the Bangladesh Jute Mills Corporation's (BJMC) decision to close down 25 factories.