"COVID-19", a name only known for months has become so familiar that nearly 7 billion Homo sapiens are not only cautious but also very concerned if not panicked.
As of now, the severity is still not significant in Bangladesh in comparison to Italy, Spain, USA and many other parts of the world. It's still unknown how the situation will evolve in future as we have just entered the limited community level outbreak situation. Although the number of infection or deaths in Bangladesh is much less compared to other affected countries, the economy is most likely to reach a devastating stage, rendering many jobless.
Bangladesh being a densely populated country, is likely be to be one of the most severely affected countries in the region due to the impact of the pandemic and the domino effect of the global crisis. Bangladesh stepped into a triangular trap due to COVID-19. When Coronavirus was first detected in China, (1) exports suffered due to lack of supply of raw materials. Again when China started recovering and supply chain was being restored in March 2020, the virus swept across other export destinations like Europe, USA, Japan, Korea, etc. (2) Hence, Bangladesh's export to these countries have been halted for a few weeks. As a result, export sectors (RMG, leather and frozen food etc.) are in a dire state with cancellation of confirmed orders.
Foreign remittance is one of the fundamental macro-economic pillars of Bangladesh. Bangladesh received nearly USD 18 bn in 2018-19, which is over 6 percent of the GDP. (3) There has been a 12 percent decrease of inward remittance in March 2020. Most of the undocumented workers in the destination countries are jobless now and a significant number of regular workers are facing salary cuts in foreign countries. Over 200,000 foreign migrant workers have returned after the outbreak of the coronavirus in their host countries.
Meanwhile many global think-tanks and financial experts have started various predictions and damage assessments. International Labour Organisation (ILO) and Asian Development Bank have also published initial reports on the virus's impact. As forecasted by many global experts, the recovery process will take several years. Experiences say that any such economic and social impairments have taken longer than usual to return to normalcy. For example, 2008 global financial crisis based on high risk mortgage securities only in USA created havoc in the whole global financial system. Many countries were yet to come out of that impact even after a decade. The magnitude of the current pandemic is much higher than that of the 2008 crisis. Some columnists termed this crisis as a "train wreck" while comparing the 2008 crisis as a "car crash".
While the breadth and depth of loss will be assessed in due course, it is for sure that the damage will be on all fronts. No doubt it will significantly influence reshaping the WORLD OF WORK. The recovery strategy will need varied approaches. 'One size fits all" formula will not be suitable. What should be the priority of the government, employers, workers and other stakeholders, including development partners, to play the desired role in the recovery process? Undoubtedly governments will have the key role to play.
From business perspective, "sustainability of enterprises" should be recognised as the topmost priority followed by reemployment of the retrenched workers due to Covid-19. According to ILO's prediction, there will be 25 million job losses globally. Perhaps in reality, the figure will shoot upwards as 6.6 million workers already filed for unemployment benefits in USA alone until April 3. Many of the micro and small enterprises will fade out increasing informality as well as precarious work. As an antidote to the effect, other vital steps should be (c) resumption of the supply chain, (d) appropriate measures to increase consumer demand, (e) adopting expansionary fiscal and monetary policies, (f) triggering mobilisations of internal and external resources, (g) promoting investment for employment creation, (h) allocating resources for development of entrepreneurship, (i) re-skilling of workers, especially returnee migrant workers, (j) introducing innovative measures for ensuring social protection for workers and employees, etc. All these steps should be taken in close collaboration with the government and other stakeholders including workers.
Regrettably, most of the major global buyers and brands in the Fashion Industry have indiscriminately either cancelled confirmed orders or withheld them during this severe crisis. H&M is one of the honourable exceptions. There are a handful of others. Bangladesh received cancellation of orders amounting to about USD 2.85 bn until March 2020. This gesture of global buyers of distancing from the sourcing partners (manufacturers) during this crisis leaving millions of workers and employees under extreme uncertainty is very unfortunate and raises the question of their commitment concerning responsible business conduct.
Growth and development are two sides of the same coin. It is more or less a common call that economic growth and export driven development interconnecting with the global supply chain depend to a large extent on the prescription of the development partners in most of the developing countries including Bangladesh. We are grateful to the development partners for their support and cooperation. Our expectation from the development partners is that in such a serious and sensitive global crisis, they would help us instead of pushing old traditional agendas which are less essential at this time of crucial exigency.
We perceive with a sense of mixed anxiety that when the recovery process will start hopefully in a few weeks or months, many of the global watchdogs (various NGOs, global worker federations and other socially concerned titleholders and regulators) are most likely to create immense pressure on the government and employers in implementing and monitoring various compliance issues including sermonising on ensuring fundamental principles and rights at work, on promoting decent/living wages and many other regulatory issues. While realising enterprise sustainability and generating/accelerating economic vibrancy as high priority to push the economy back into the minimum operational normalcy, creation of added pressure on regulatory issues, will further delay the recovery process.
In light of above, it is hoped the government, employers, workers, development partners will join hands in formulating a comprehensive strategy with a bold and visionary approach which would facilitate smooth recovery from the Covid-19 impact, most pragmatically with realistic assessments, so that enterprises and businesses can create new jobs, make investments and offer opportunities for materialising the SDG goals. The statutory requirements will undoubtedly be met, but higher standards from more developed systems sought to be imposed may not help those who need help the most in these times of real crisis. The current need is to perhaps concentrate more on economic prescriptions.
The development partners and global lenders should divert their technical assistance and cooperation programmes towards fuelling economic vibrancy and stimulating employment for at least the next three years instead of utilising scarce resources in other less essential areas at this time of urgency.
Farooq Ahmed is the Secretary-General of Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Dhaka (MCCI) and Bangladesh Employers Federation (BEF). The opinions expressed in this article are his own.