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The economy has been kept alive during the pandemic by the readymade garment sector, agriculture and remittance from expatriate labour. Coronavirus did not have a serious impact on agriculture. Despite floods and cyclones, the rice crop was good this year. The farmers received good price for their crop too. But it was in the readymade garment sector that thousands of workers were laid off. Many migrant workers have also lost their jobs and returned to the country. Then there is the informal sector, outside of these two sectors, where thousands have lost their work. They would somehow run their families with their wages, but now they have nothing. They are the new poor. Economists put their figure at around 25 million (2.5 crore).

According to a study of the International Finance Corporation (IFC), a member of the World Bank group, 37 per cent of the people working in the micro, small and medium enterprises (MSME) have become unemployed. Around 20 per cent of Bangladesh’s GDP comes from this sector. About 20 million (2 core) men and women work in this sector.

According to ILO’s research, it is the young generation that is most at risk in this pandemic. Around 24.8 per cent of young people between 15 and 24 have become unemployed.

It is intolerable unemployment that drives these people, despite advice from the government and warnings from others, to drown in the seas, get lost in the deserts or the oceans, in search of jobs abroad

There is no significant allocation for this large population in the finance minister’s business-friendly budget. As economist Debapriya Bhattacharya said, the finance minister has forgotten to take the passengers aboard the bus. The passengers are those unemployed and newly poor people.

Then there are others who have not quite suddenly become poor. They have passed out of college and university and are waiting for jobs. They know very well how elusive jobs are in Bangladesh. Every year around 4000 people get cadre and non-cadre jobs of the Public Service Commission. Over 200,000 take the exams for these jobs. That means there are around 50 aspirants for every one post. The competition in other jobs is even higher.

A recent report by Prothom Alo’s diplomatic correspondent Raheed Ejaz revealed the tragic tales of the young people who had been trafficked to Libya and then rescued from the sea. On 18 May the Tunisian coast guard rescued 35 Bangladeshis adrift in a wooden boat in the Mediterranean Sea. They have been temporarily kept at the Red Crescent Society shelter home in the Tunisian town Zarzis. One of the rescued youth, Al Amin, had seen his uncle drown in the sea while on the hazardous journey from Libya to Italy. He himself barely escaped death. Yet he still does not want to return home. He had borrowed a lot of money to go to Italy and won’t be able to repay these debts if he returns. The coast guard in Tunisia rescued 443 Bangladeshis in 22 days. In the first five months of this year, 2,608 such people have left Bangladesh in this manner.

It is intolerable unemployment that drives these people, despite advice from the government and warnings from others, to drown in the seas, get lost in the deserts or the oceans, in search of jobs abroad.

Had there been even meagre work for them in the country, they would not have risked their lives to go abroad. The government policymakers advise the youth to take up their own enterprises rather than jobs. But how conducive is the environment for such enterprise? The moment one starts up a business, party men demand toll money. When one has to pay such hoodlums even when building a house on one’s own land, how far is there scope to run an enterprise?

It is not just off the coast of Libya that these Bangladeshis are found. Men and women from Bangladesh sell all their land and property to go to Italy, Greece, Malaysia, Brunei, Singapore, Lebanon, Maldives, Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan, wherever there is the slightest chance of employment. Some make it, while some fall prey to dubious agents and return home with bitter experiences.

A few days ago a woman expatriate worker returned after serving time in a Saudi prison. She has been sexually abused there by her Saudi employer and later gave birth to a child in prison. At the airport the woman handed over her seven-month-old infant to an employee, saying, “I cannot take this child home.” So many women like her are going abroad, being abused and oppressed. The leaders of this country, a role model in development, take no heed. They simply bask in the records of remittance.

We would be happy if there was any allocation for these hapless people, or any roadmap for their employment, in the finance minister’s budget. Every year 2.1 million to 2.2 million (21 lakh to 22 lakh) people are entering the job market. At the most 700,000 get employment in the public and private sectors. A few hundred thousand more manage to get employment overseas. So that leaves around half of the able manpower unemployed. And many of them are forced into work that cannot sustain their families.

When some youth went to certain top bureaucrats with this issue, the top bureaucrats supported them in principle. But they also said, “We can extend the age limit of entry into service, but then you must also make a demand to extend retirement age by two years!”

Recruitment has almost come to a halt in the public and private sectors during these coronavirus times. The overseas job market has shrunk. Also due to coronavirus, the public universities (including the National University which is responsible for around 70 per cent of the higher education) have not been able to hold exams. So the students are falling back by nearly two years. And there is no improvement in the corona situation in sight.

Under these circumstances, there is need for the government to rethink the age limit for public service. According to the government rules, the application time limit was for those who were 30 years old at the start of 2020. They are no longer eligible to apply. In the meantime, exams for three batches have been held up at the Public Service Commission. If anyone qualifies, they will get the job. If they do not, they won’t. But surely those who have wasted nearly two years of their lives due to corona should be given a chance to take the BCS exam.

In this context, the demand being made by job aspirants to extend the age limit by two years for entry into public service seems well justified. They have taken to the streets with this demand. They are appealing to the ministers, MPs and bureaucrats. The ministers and MPs make all sorts of political pledges. If anyone goes with the demand not to extend the age limit, they reassure them. If anyone goes with the opposite demand, they reassure them too. Politicians have to keep everyone happy.

But someone involved in this movement related a different experience. When some youth went to certain top bureaucrats with this issue, the top bureaucrats supported them in principle. But they also said, “We can extend the age limit of entry into service, but then you must also make a demand to extend retirement age by two years!”

This is nothing but making a joke out of these young service seekers.

* Sohrab Hassan is joint editor of Prothom Alo and a poet. He can be contacted at [email protected]

* This column appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Ayesha Kabir

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