An Insight on the Unemployment Amidst the COVID-19 in South Asia

Unemployed Indians shining shoes. File Photo: AFP / Ravi Raveendrain

by Mohammad Kepayet Ullah 19 May 2020

54-year old street-vendor, Kashem, is a daily basis wage-earner who lives in a congested slum in the city of Dhaka, Bangladesh. He lost his wife nine years ago. He has a 16-year old daughter, Kulsum, who is a low paid readymade garment worker. Recently, she lost her job due to COVID-19. Kashem is also unable to re-open his street shop because of present countywide ‘lockdown.’ Kashem’s life now stands on a double-edge sword: outside the house is the fear of a rapidly contagious pandemic, and inside the house is starvation and half-starvation without any income. Suffering is endless for Kashem, who, without any savings or income generation, has to pay house-rent and maintain livelihoods. This story of pain is not only about Kashem and Kulsum, but also about almost half of the population in Bangladesh and across South Asia: a garment worker, a street vendor, a rickshaw puller, a construction worker, a transport worker and it goes on and on. Even the fear of laying off hits the private sector executive-level job market also. Recently, at least dozens of prominent mass media houses in Bangladesh sacked their officials and employees as the pandemic ascended. One of the leading TV channels in the country not to be named fired 3 of its staff on the day of the World Press Freedom Day this year. This demonstrates the magnitude of the crisis the country is facing today and going to face in the coming days.

Researchers from Dhaka University’s Institute of Health Economics estimate that around 15 million people from different sectors will become unemployed in Bangladesh due to the slowdown of trade and business caused by a deadly virus. Moreover, some Bangladeshi economist and analyst estimated that nearly 20 million people might lose their jobless due to COVID-19 crisis. They expected that people who are involved in labor-oriented sectors like garment workers, construction workers, transport workers have already become temporarily unemployed, which putting severe stress on the economy, and it will have a substantial adverse impact on livelihoods. Day-laborers, transport workers, hawkers, the employees of hotels, restaurants, and different shops and other informal workers are the worst victims of the halt in economic activity as they have lost their means to earn bread and butter. According to the Labor Force Survey-2017, around 60.8 million people were involved in various economic activities, while informal employment or labor-oriented sectors were dominating as 85.1 percent of the total population in Bangladesh. The contribution of casual jobs to urban areas was 13.1 million and 38.6 million in rural areas.

According to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS), around 34 million people, or 20.5 percent of the population, live below the poverty line. So, there is no alternative but a tremendous amount of government assistance to keep this population alive. The government announced the incentive package, but it’s not sufficient for a large number of people. People need basic things at the time of the pandemic. So, the government has to increase health care as well as grass-feeding and keep them alive.

The pandemic has brought much hardship to workers in informal sectors or labor-oriented sectors, including some unnoticed vulnerable class of workers like sex workers and transgender communities. Sex Worker Network in Bangladesh, a sex-worker-right monitor, estimated that at least 8,000 sex workers have already become homeless in Dhaka. About 150,000 sex workers in Bangladesh are one of the worst-hit communities following the ‘shutdown.’ On top of that, these communities receive no attention from the government or civil society aid groups leading to exacerbated endurance for these communities.

The unemployment scenario is more or less the same across South Asia. Similarly, in India, the countrywide lockdown to control the spread of coronavirus has seen 122 million Indians lose their jobs in April. India’s unemployment rate is now at a record peak of 27.1%, according to the Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy (CMIE). Unemployment hits 23.5% in April, a sharp spike from 8.7% in March. And the unemployment rate is the highest in the urban areas. The survey findings estimate that the worst situation is in Puducherry, Tamil Nadu, Jharkhand, and Bihar. There is an unemployment rate peaking about 50 percent. But hilly States had the lowest incidence of unemployment as of April, the survey said, pointing out that the rate in Himachal Pradesh stood at 2.2%, Sikkim at 2.3% and Uttarakhand at 6.5%.

Meanwhile, in Pakistan, the Federal Minister for Planning and Development, Asad Umar, predicted that around 18 million people might lose their jobs due to lockdowns. But Pakistan makes a social paradigm to prevent the worst unemployment situation. World fifth populated country Pakistan takes a green stimulus scheme, which is a win-win for the given environment and the overthrown unemployed population. Lahore has created more than 63,000 jobs for unemployed day laborers or labor-oriented workers and by relaunching the nation’s ambitious 10 billion Tree Tsunami Campaign. This project is a part of Pakistan’s existing initiative to plant billions of trees to counter the effects of climate change. Like other South Asian countries, Pakistan is severely affected by climate change, experiencing more than 150 extreme weather events between 1999 and 2018. Another step is, PM Imran Khan launched a web portal for the victims of lockdown. Those who have lost their jobs will be able to register themselves on the portal. Under this Ehsaas Emergency Cash program, registered unemployed will be given a maximum RS 12,000.

In Afghanistan, according to data by the Biruni Institute, a local economic think-tank, as a result of the pandemic, 6 million people have already lost their jobs in the country where 80 percent of people live below the poverty line. The political crisis is the other reason for unemployment in the country. The political turmoil, security threats, the lockdown of cities, and the reduction of international are the great matter of concern the war-ravaged Afghanistan. The Ministry of Economy had warned earlier that unemployment in Afghanistan would increase by 40%, and poverty will increase by 70% because of unemployment and the spread of the COVID-19. But the ray of hope is, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) approved $220 million in emergency aid for Afghanistan to help cushion the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Other countries in South Asia are also experiencing a pandemic rampage, while poverty was already an embedded part of their economy. Pre-pandemic poverty rate as estimated: 8.2 percent in both Bhutan and the Maldives, 25 percent in Nepal, 33 percent in Sri Lanka. This rate is highly likely to increase at an unprecedented scale.

The International Labour Organization said, nearly half the world’s workers are at immediate risk of losing their jobs. The sobering statement will ring alarm bells in economies around the world, with every nation on the planet likely to be affected by the devastating fallout from the spread of coronavirus. Some 1.6 billion workers in the informal or labor-oriented sectors, almost half of the global labor force, as well as those at the most vulnerable end of the employment ladder, are in danger of losing their livelihoods.

South Asia is home to over 1.8 billion people and houses half of the world’s impoverished communities. The region has the potential to become the world’s factory next to China as the world is turning back to China. However, uncertainty remains how the region will overcome the upcoming post-pandemic recession and feed the workforce to stay alive to take over the global labor market. Nonetheless, some employers are taking advantage of the pandemic period by soaring labor oppression, which is not a humanistic approach and will lead to the trust-crisis and labor-unrest in the region. That said, South Asian leaders should work together to build the region during the pandemic and post-pandemic recession. How was the May Day this year for laborers and working-class people was better understood by laborers and working-class people who lost their earnings or only means of livelihoods due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I wish them a late happy May Day and long-lasting solidarity.

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