Female Informal Workers in Dhaka during COVID-19: Unnoticed and Unprotected as Always

By |2024-01-04T16:38:48+01:00October 13th 2022|Gender and Inequalities|

Informal workers contribute greatly to countries’ economic growth. Over 43 per cent of the national GDP in Bangladesh is generated by the informal sector, where women are overrepresented. In times of crisis, however, they are often left unprotected. Jahid Nur on the situation of female informal workers in Bangladesh during COVID-19.

Global crises usually have greater socio-economic impacts on women than on their male counterparts. The scenario did not change during COVID-19. According to a policy brief by the International Labour Organization (ILO), women have lost more jobs, experienced significant income losses, and encountered multifaceted difficulties to secure their livelihoods during the pandemic in almost every region of the world, including Asia. A panel survey in Bangladesh, conducted jointly by the Power and Participation Research Centre (PPRC) and the BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD), found that female informal workers living in urban informal settlements have faced greater challenges to re-enter the labour market in comparison with the male workers, after losing their livelihoods at a higher rate during COVID-19.

Coping Strategies of Female Informal Workers: Qualitative Findings

I conducted a follow-up qualitative study where one of the objectives was to explore how the female informal workers in the nation’s capital, Dhaka, were coping with the crisis while they were struggling to earn their livelihoods. The results reveal an unsurprising scenario where the coping strategies were dominated by individual and social endeavours in the absence of adequate support from the government.

During the pandemic, cutting household costs and tapping into social capital were two of the most utilised coping strategies adopted by female informal workers in Dhaka. Most of the households of these workers reduced food consumption significantly, as there was almost no option for them to reduce non-food costs, especially house rents. A private tutor who also worked as a home-based tailor shared that during the first two months of lockdown, her household had to split the food for one meal into three separate meals.

Female informal workers in Dhaka also used social capital during the pandemic, a long-standing practical coping strategy in Bangladesh. They borrowed loans from their neighbours and families, tried to re-enter the market with the help of their social networks, and provided mutual mental support to each other.

Apart from social networks, these workers took loans from other sources to tackle their financial predicaments. Non-government organisations (NGOs) were a reliable source from which they could borrow easily. Local moneylenders, who charge high-interest rates, also were very active in providing loans as they could be easily accessed during the lockdowns. For instance, a home-based restaurant cook took some loans from local moneylenders during the first days of the crisis.

But after a few days, when she could secure a loan from an NGO, she paid back the local moneylenders to avoid falling into a debt trap. Unlike her, who had no savings, most female informal workers in Dhaka used their savings first. Working in the informal sector, these women save as much as they can, knowing that employment is not guaranteed. Their savings came to the forefront during the crisis, but these were so insufficient that they were drained completely, leaving them no choice but to rely on loans.

Governmental Strategies Were Not Successful in Addressing the Most Vulnerable

A question might arise from the preceding discussion: why were the coping strategies dominated by individual and social endeavours, rather than the measures from the government?

One answer could be the incapacity of the government to provide and manage adequate support. BIGD’s report State of Governance in Bangladesh 2020-2021 revealed that both the relief programme of the government and the livelihood restoration strategy through the economic stimulus packages failed to address the poor section of the population. The relief programme was largely insufficient and plagued by the unreliability of the distribution process. Whereas, the economic stimulus packages gave precedence to growth rather than protection, leaving the vulnerable segment of society— such as urban female informal workers— unprotected. The absence of an updated database of workers in the informal sector had only compounded this challenge.

Another part of the answer lies possibly in the structure of the existing social protection regime. The urban poor, most of whom are employed in the informal sector, have been overlooked in the country’s rural-focused social protection strategies. This legacy continued amid the pandemic, as the urban poor were largely unrecognised in the policy measures adopted by the government. Social Security Policy Support (SPSS) programme under the Bangladesh Planning Commission conducted an analysis regarding the social protection programme response during COVID-19.

Their report contended that the urban poor could neither benefit from the growth-oriented economic stimulus packages nor the relief measures, such as the cash distribution programme. In addition, the policy measures of the government were mostly gender-blind. For instance, the cash distribution programme for poor people did not have a specific provision to acknowledge women’s economic security. Thus, they were not able to address the hardest hit in the informal sector, urban female workers.

Protecting Our Informal Workers Must Be a Top Priority

Urban informal sector workers in Bangladesh, in general, are unrecognised, undervalued, and unprotected despite their significant contribution to the national economy. Being employed in the lower ranks of the sector, female workers inherently face greater precarity, which made them one of the most vulnerable groups during the pandemic. During COVID-19, these workers were bereft of the protection they deserved as they bore the brunt of the crisis while they were struggling to secure their livelihoods.

As the country thrives to propel itself within the bracket of the developing nations, it needs to acknowledge and protect its large pool of urban informal workers, particularly female workers, from socio-economic shocks. Devising and actualising an inclusive social protection programme for the informal workers should be on the upper end of the priority list, with special provisions for female workers. With the latest inflation and energy crisis in the country jeopardising the post-COVID recovery, we can only hope that the government will protect this vulnerable group from getting stuck in the trap of poverty.

Jahid Nur