Monday, 4 July, 2022

Earmark Separate Fund for Workers' Social Safety

Z A M Khairuzzaman

The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development sees poverty reduction in all its dimensions and inclusive growth as one of the world’s greatest challenges. The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) include the universal agenda of implementing nationally appropriate social protection systems with substantial coverage for the poor and vulnerable. The SDGs will be achieved through the adoption of equitable policies for all. In Bangladesh, working people are the most vulnerable section of society. In formal and informal sectors, lots of workers lost their jobs during the Covid-19 pandemic. Although the pandemic situation has now improved, many of the hapless workers are yet to get back their jobs. Presently, many of them are leading a sub-human life. In such a grim situation, the Ministry of Finance is getting prepared to announce the national budget for the 2022-23 fiscal year. Budget preparations are in the final stage. Finance Minister AHM Mustafa Kamal is expected to place the budget at Jatiya Sangsad (parliament) on June 09.

As per press reports, the upcoming budget will put special focus on job creation as a tool for Covid-19 recovery while combining popular measures targeting the next elections. The government wants to present a good piece of news to the people through the budget. We feel elated learning that the finance officials have touted the new budget as a ‘people’s welfare budget.’ As social security is the hallmark of a mature welfare state, we love to think that this time the issue of workers’ social safety would be incorporated into the budget to make it labour friendly. However, the government is formulating the budget at a time when the country is facing an unprecedented crisis as the economy is yet to recover from the impact of Covid-19 despite reduced health impact. As to why, the Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies (BILS) has urged the government to prioritise the protection of purchasing capacity of the poor working class in the proposed budget for helping them cope with the sharp rise in prices of essential commodities. The finance minister should reduce the tax and VAT on production and imports of essentials, rearrange subsidies for the poor and expand the coverage and per capita allocation of the social safety net programme. The current price situation in the market has adversely impacted the low- and lower-income working population. Reining in the prices of essentials should be the most urgent and critically important policy objective of the administration. According to BILS, the level of the price hike in the commodity market is even 5-6 times higher than inflation data provided by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS). People belonging to the middle-income group are also reportedly unable to bear the expenses of their families. The government has a tendency to formulate a larger budget based on some unrealistic assumptions, which remains underutilised in terms of expenditure and revenue generation. It should formulate a realistic budget and increase the institutional capacity to implement it. Although the proposed measures would create some pressure on the budget deficit due to some additional costs and losing revenue earnings, a certain level of budget deficit to protect the livelihood of the poor working people would not create any pressure on macroeconomic stability.

Although the allocation for social protection schemes has steadily increased, it is still far below in proportion of the GDP. Besides, at least 25% of social safety allocation goes to paying pensions of retired government employees. It is the demand of the BILS that allocations for social safety programmes meant for poor workers should be earmarked separately. If this is done, the government's popularity will increase ahead of the upcoming general elections. In the forthcoming election manifesto, political parties need to have a commitment to inclusive and sustainable economic growth and social welfare. Since independence, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was dedicated to the welfare of the working people. In his every step, he demonstrated himself as a dedicated person for the oppressed working class. After independence, Bangabandhu nationalised all abandoned industries to protect the workers' rights and declared May 1 a public holiday. Following the footsteps of her father, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is also working for the welfare of the labourers. Her government has so far signed 36 International Labour Organisation (ILO) protocols and conventions for the protection of the rights of workers. As per press reports, the government is likely to widen the social safety net in the upcoming budget aiming to safeguard the poor from inflationary pressure stemming from the global commodity price hike.

However, necessary planning and allocation should be ensured in the budget to create a complete workers database. It can be a digital database. It can combine employment data (Sector/Nature of employment/wage/ vulnerability) with National Identity (NID) card data. Trade Unions can be engaged with this. A necessary budget should be allocated for the management of industries run under the public-private partnerships (PPP) as per the government decision. A new project should be introduced with the necessary budget allocation to address initial analysis and plans for creating productive employment and decent work. Allocation of the necessary budget should be incorporated to formulate a common pension scheme, unemployment allowance and provision of concessionary allowances in line with the increase in commodity prices considering the social security of the workers.

The notion of social security adopted by the ILO covers all measures providing benefits, whether in cash or in-kind, to secure protection, inter alia, from (a) lack of work-related income or insufficient income caused by sickness, disability, maternity, employment injury, unemployment, old age, or death of a family member; (b) lack of access or unaffordable access to health care; (c) insufficient family support, particularly for children and adult dependants; (d) general poverty and social exclusion. Social security thus has two main functional dimensions, namely ‘income security’ and ‘availability of medical care’, which are specifically identified in the ILO Income Security Recommendation, 1944 (No. 67), and the Medical Care Recommendation, 1944 (No. 69), respectively, as ‘essential elements of social security’. What distinguishes social security from other social arrangements is that: (1) benefits are provided to beneficiaries without any simultaneous reciprocal obligation (thus it does not, for example, represent remuneration for work or other services delivered); and (2) it is not based on an individual agreement between the protected person and provider (as, for example, a life insurance contract) but that the agreement applies to a wider group of people and so has a collective character.

We believe the finance minister will earmark separate fund for workers' social safety scheme in the upcoming financial year.

The writer is a columnist. E-mail: [email protected]