Employment in the agriculture sector was hit the hardest by the adverse impacts of Covid-19, resulting in reduced work hours and income as many workers in other sectors who lost their jobs got involved in farming, a Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) survey has revealed.
It found that agriculture workers had increased by more than 18% compared to February 2020, the pre-Covid-19 time, while the share of service workers had fallen to 52% of the total labour force from 55.13%.
The CPD and Oxfam Bangladesh jointly published the survey report at a virtual dialogue on Wednesday. The survey was conducted among 2,600 households in late January and early February this year.
Presenting the keynote, Towfiqul Islam Khan, senior research fellow of CPD, said the average work hours of agriculture workers had decreased by 8.11% due to the additional labour force the sector had received and their earnings had reduced by 16.5%.
"The average weekly work hours reduced by 4% at the national level while income declined by 11.92%. The reduction in wage and work hours was the highest in the agriculture sector."
He said more than 61% of people had become jobless during last year's lockdown and only 15% of them had got new jobs within a month while the remaining 85% had remained unemployed for a long period.
The researcher said all the unemployed people joined whatever work they found within 181 days of losing jobs and faced an average involuntary leisure period of 95 days.
"Despite the full recovery of jobs prior to the second wave of Covid-19, their earnings remained far below the pre-Covid-19 level as they worked in low-skilled, agri-based informal sectors."
He further said most of the incremental employment after the first shock of Covid-19 was generated in the agriculture sector.
"At the same time, a significant number of people left the service sector. Given the nature of economic recovery, it is likely that structural transformations went backwards."
The survey found that the employment situation of about 42% of the employed people was worse than that in the pre-Covid-19 period while only 8% reported better situations.
About 45% of households had a lower income compared to the pre-Covid-19 period, which led to about 86% of individuals earning less than what they needed to meet their daily needs.
Due to reduced income, about 78% of households cut expenditure to cope with the impacts while 52% changed dietary patterns involuntarily.
About half the households experienced a decline in savings and more than half had to resort to borrowings. The average loan size of the households doubled last year.
Moreover, government support was limited and only 20% of households received some form of state assistance.
CPD Chairman Prof Rehman Sobhan said the importance of dealing with the Covid-19 crisis itself had been underestimated while China and Vietnam had seen success in containing the adverse economic impacts as they had first addressed the health crisis.
After a partial recovery, a fresh crisis emerged when further restrictions were imposed on lives and livelihoods due to the latest surge in infections, he pointed out.
"You are going back to square one. Primary attention should actually be given to lives and livelihoods like the Chinese and the Vietnamese did," he said.
Prof Sobhan referred to the government's weaknesses in enforcing a strict and comprehensive lockdown and failure to establish a sustainable, foolproof intervention mechanism to help the targeted households either with cash or kind.
He said for Covid-19-specific policy intervention, it is very important to have a clear understanding of how the disease actually impacted all areas of the economy in order to determine the extent to which lockdowns caused losses of employment opportunities and the resulting income losses, how global circumstances harmed exports, and caused return of migrants.
Tapan Chowdhury, former advisor to the caretaker government and managing director of Square Pharmaceuticals, said the low-income people had been affected the most in the pandemic.
He said workers had been highly affected both in terms of work hours and jobs, particularly in agriculture and manufacturing.
But substantial investments were made in industries despite the pandemic, he added.
Dr Rizwanul Islam, former special advisor on growth, employment and poverty reduction at the International Labour Organisation, said the government should invest in labour-intensive rural roads and infrastructure to stimulate the rural economy.
He said this would lead to employment and earning opportunities for various types of people and help stimulate the domestic market.
At the same time, the localisation of such public investment programmes should be taken into account, he added.
Rizwan Rahman, president of Dhaka Chamber of Commerce and Industry, said the reduction in export earnings and foreign direct investment inflow had adversely impacted the investment arena.
These negative developments, in turn, affected the field of employment to a considerable degree, he added.
Dr Debapriya Bhattacharya, a distinguished fellow at CPD, questioned whether the degradation of labour would persist in future.
The economist said the integration of recovery with structural transformation issues is highly important and emphasised targeted support for disadvantaged groups that had been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.
Business Initiative Leading Development Chief Executive Officer Ferdaus Ara Begum said agriculture had generated the highest number of jobs among all sectors that had seen new employments in the pandemic.
"That was also the case in the service sector, but industrial jobs decreased. Although jobs were created in the agriculture sector, work hours decreased. Work hours reduced in the industrial sector as well," she added.
Founder and Executive Director at Eco-Social Development Organisation Zaman Shahid said Bangladesh's poverty rate had gone up as those involved in agricultural commercialisation failed to act responsibly.
The 2016 labour force survey of Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics said 24.7 million people were engaged in agriculture, which was 40.6% of the total employed labour force.
There were 25.6 million people engaged in agriculture in 2010, meaning 0.9 million left the sector in six years despite 7.6 million new employments in industries and the service sector.
The CPD survey revealed that the average weekly work hour in agriculture decreased to 34 from 37, which was in February last year.
Despite some reductions, the weekly work hour is 53 in the industrial sector while that in the service sector remains unchanged at 54.
The average work hour in agriculture is 48% less than that in the industrial and service sectors.
Professor Mustafizur Rahman, a distinguished fellow at CPD, chaired the event while Dr Fahmida Khatun, executive director at CPD, and Dr Dipankar Datta, country director at Oxfam Bangladesh, also spoke.