Sewing Floor, Armana Apparels, Dhaka. Photo: Shobha Shetty
Contradictory trends in female labor force participation in South Asia continue to pose a puzzle for policymakers. On the one hand, Bangladesh’s ready-made garment industry, one of the mainstays of the national economy, has a high female labor participation rate of 85%. On the other hand, the female labor force participation rates continue to fall in India in spite of recent high economic growth. During my recent visit to Dhaka, I was once again reminded about the enormous challenges of tackling these issues.
I was in Dhaka to attend the 7th Meeting of the BEES (Business, Enterprise and Employment Support for Women in South Asia) Network. Founded in May 2011, the BEES network, facilitated by the World Bank, brings together 15 civil society organisations that work for the economic empowerment of poor women across South Asia. Currently, the network represents women at the bottom of the economic pyramid, with a collective reach of over 100 million. It was a sombre coincidence that the week of our visit marked the first year anniversary of the horrific Rana Plaza disaster in which over 1,100 perished.
The rise of the ready-made garment industry in Bangladesh in the last decade has been stunning by every measure. By 2013, about 4 million people - almost 85% women - were working in the US$22 billion-a-year industry. The industry now contributes to over 75% of Bangladesh’s export earnings and accounts for over 10% of GDP, making it the world's second-largest apparel exporter after China.
But what does it mean for the millions of women employed in this industry? Thanks to Manusher Jonno Foundation (MJF), one of the Bangladesh BEES network members and co-host of the Dhaka meeting, I was lucky to visit the Awaj (“voice”) Foundation to understand this issue better. Founded in 2003, the organisation focuses on empowering female RMG workers. We got an opportunity to meet Nazma Akter, the feisty General Secretary of the foundation and a former garment worker. After spending 7 years in the ready-made garment industry as a young girl, she turned to activism on behalf of her fellow women workers. She is now a well-recognised national name and Awaj has a direct outreach to 60,000 women workers (and 600,000 indirectly).
Labor and Social Protection
New entrants to the working age population in most Middle East and North Africa countries encounter economic structures and policies that have long failed to generate an adequate number of new jobs. In recent years, about 5 million people per year have reached working age but only 3 million of them have found jobs. Unfortunately, ongoing political turmoil and associated economic conditions and policies suggest that the jobs challenge will continue to fester for years to come. However, help may be on the way from a “curiously unnoticed” source: falling fertility rates.
While many economies are recovering from the global recession, there are still 600 million jobs needed to be created over the next decade to maintain today's employment rates. Eliminating extreme poverty and boosting shared prosperity for the bottom 40 percent of the population by 2030 requires that we engage more effectively to bring hundreds of millions of people into productive work and out of poverty.
While many initiatives on youth employment have been undertaken over the past few years, there is still limited knowledge about the best way to design, implement and coordinate these interventions, and how to link them to broader reforms that promote private investment and business creation and/or expansion. At the same time, the limited knowledge that we do have does not take into account the significant heterogeneity of constraints across settings and different youth populations, and few programs are designed to take into account these differences in context and needs.
Across the globe, young people are a growing share of the labor force. Goals about poverty reduction and shared prosperity depend on the jobs and earnings opportunities they will have. The technical, cognitive, and behavioral skills (such us teamwork, problem-solving skills and creativity) of workers will determine, to a large extent, their job and earnings opportunities. Unfortunately, around the world, much of the labor force has very low levels of education. Young people graduating from vocational centers or universities often lack the relevant skills for the labor markets.
At this year’s Solutions4Work conference, more than 170 academics, business leaders, and government ministers gathered together in Istanbul, Turkey to discuss challenges and solutions facing countries in addressing youth employment. At the conference, we are particularly energized to hear from youth groups and entrepreneurs from around the world who are creating a movement, change in culture, and tools for their fellow youth.
Those unfamiliar with the fast growing emerging economies of East Asia are likely to think that governments in these countries let market forces and capitalism roam free, red in tooth and claw. That was certainly my impression before coming to work in the region, and generally that held at the outset of our work by the group of us that wrote a new World Bank report “East Asia Pacific At Work: Employment, Enterprise and Wellbeing” .
The report shows just how wrong we were. We could be forgiven this impression—many of us had come from assignments in Latin America and the Caribbean or in Europe and Central Asia, where the distortions and rigidities from labor regulation and poorly designed social protection are rife, and where policy makers cast envious looks at the stellar and sustained employment outcomes in East Asia.
Well, it turns out that although they came relatively late to labor regulation and social protection, many governments in the region have entered this arena with gusto. We were surprised to find that, going just by what is written in their labor codes, the average level of employment protection in East Asia is actually higher than the OECD average.
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Over the next decade, 1 billion people will enter the labor market. Altogether, the global economy will need to create 5 million jobs each month, simply to keep employment rates constant. Global growth and poverty reduction over the next 20 years will be driven by today’s young people, yet many of them face significant difficulties in finding productive employment.
The 10th South Asian Economics Students Meet (SAESM) was held in Lahore, Pakistan, bringing together 82 top economics undergraduate students from the region. The theme was the Political Economy of South Asia, with a winning paper selected for each of the six sub-themes. In this post, Rumela Ghosh presents her winning paper on the political economy of social security. Posts from the other winning authors will follow over the next few weeks.
Employment is one of the burning problems affecting South Asia. India now has a diminished growth rate below 6% per year. In recent years although the living standards of the 'middle classes' have improved, reform for underprivileged groups has not been so exciting. According to National Service Scheme (NSS) data the average per capita expenditure rose at the exceedingly low rate of 1% per year in India. There has been a sharp decline in real agricultural wages also. A quantitative assessment of the impact of various rural wage employment schemes during the last two five-year plans and the current one shows that the results in terms of employment generated have been steadily decreasing.
My paper looked at schemes to tackle unemployment in India. A Bird's Eye View into Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act firstly examines the Maharashtra Employment Guarantee Scheme (MEGS) introduced in the 1970s. It examines how at different time frames and contexts the elite managed to maintain their support base and reinforced its legitimacy by supporting a poverty alleviation program – the EGS. It also highlights the issue of gender concern and the problem of migrant workers.
Among various EGS, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) is the flagship program implemented at the national level which achieved measurable success, though with some flaws. It guarantees every rural household up to 100 days of wage employment in a year within 15 days of demand for such employment. My study highlights the significant interstate differences in the supply of employment and tries to explore the reasons why. Supply falls far short of demand, particularly in low-income states, where the organizational capacity to implement the scheme is limited.
The paper examines the conceptual design and delivery of MGNREGA to assess its effectiveness against unemployment and poverty. I discuss existing labor laws applicable to workers in the unorganized sector covering wages, contract and poverty incidence. The paper also seeks to derive the short run and long run implications of a minimum wage law. A detailed empirical analysis of the spatial dimension of implementation, problems of funding, and budgetary incidence of MGNREGA.
A comparative study of MGNREGA scheme as implemented in Tamil Nadu where it is largely fair and corruption free with respect to that in Uttar Pradesh where the implementation has some serious flaws with corrupt practices of local officials paying wage payments to non-existing laborers has been illustrated. It studies the differences in utilization, extent of targeting, magnitude of income transfers and the cost-effectiveness of food subsidies.
I designed a game-theoretic model to design a near-perfect scheme with suggestions to eliminate the loop holes. Various falsified implementation strategies by contractors like fictitious names in muster rolls, commission to the contractor for partially/not working laborers has undermined the objectives of MGNREGA. This illegal money laundering from a subsidized scheme like MGNREGA digs a deep hole in India's economic pocket when the economy is reeling under inflation and rupee value depreciation pains. The model attempts a systematic game theory based solution approach for restricting these scheme implementation faults. A graphical presentation shows that, with such a policy laborers in the long run will have an incentive to deliver under MGNREGA only.
Lessons on Governance from Bangladesh’s Garment Industry
One year ago today, in the outskirts of Bangladesh’s capital city, an eight-story garment factory collapsed of its own weight, killing 1,130 young workers and injuring thousands more. The ghastly photos of bodies trapped in the Rana Plaza wreckage provoked outrage in the wealthy world, targeted largely at global retailers who purchased garments there. North American and European consumers called for measures to ensure safe conditions and humane treatment for Bangladeshi garment workers, mostly young women from poor families in remote rural areas. Many called for a boycott of the big-box retailers and of the Bangladeshi products they sell.
I had just moved from Bangladesh to Europe at the time, and my advice to friends who asked was: “Go ahead and buy those skinny jeans or that tank top if you want. It’s the right thing to do for Bangladesh and its young workers.”
A view from Central Europe and the Baltics
Saving for old age is important in countries where longevity is increasing. Countries in Central Europe and the Baltics emerged from the economic transition of the 1990s recognizing that they needed to encourage their workforce to retire later and save more in order to be comfortable in old age. To this end, they modified their pay as you go pension systems which collects taxes from workers to pay retirees (the "first pillar") to create an additional or "second pillar" of individual pension accounts funded by taxes. As these second pillar pension accounts were the private property of individual workers, they were expected to encourage saving. Over time as these savings grew, it would be possible to reduce the pensions paid by the government from the first pillar without reducing the standard of living for pensioners who would be able to rely on complementary pensions from their private saving in the second pillar. Typically, a share of payroll tax receipts was redirected to finance individual pension saving accounts. This resulted in revenue shortfalls in pay as you go you pension schemes, and most governments raised additional debt to meet their obligations which was in turn held by the companies who were managing the pension savings on behalf of employees. However, since the economies were growing rapidly, fiscal deficits were generally kept manageable, easing concerns about additional debt.