Vol. 5 Num 141 Wed. October 13, 2004  
Front Page

Youth lost to joblessness
One-third workforce find no work, their number rising by the year

An unbridled rise in joblessness is stoking up frustration among the youths, besides snowballing crimes. Experts estimate at least one-third of the country's population is either unemployed or underemployed and their numbers are growing by the year at a breakneck pace, as there is but little opportunity for creating new jobs.

Last year, the country's population stood at about 13.81 crore, of which 6.83 crore constituted its labour force. Experts reckon some 2.72 crore members of that force were either jobless or underemployed. There was another great mass of 3.50 crore economically inactive people comprised of students, retired and income recipients, beggars and the multitudes engaged in household work.

A survey of Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) in 2000 found 2.40 crore, or 39.9 percent of the country's 6.02-crore labour force, including child labour, as either unemployed or underemployed. The population was then 12.98 crore.

The members of the labour force not doing any work at all or working less than 15 hours in the reference week were considered unemployed and one working less than 35 hours underemployed.

With over 10 lakh new entrants to the job market every year, the bulk of unproductive manpower has since been rising steeply. The country's formal employment sectors can hardly absorb one-third of the new job seekers due to low investment level, employment generation and economic growth, compounding the crisis.

"One-third of the population is unemployed or underemployed, with one million job seekers being added to that every year. And the problem becomes more and more acute, as there is little scope for creating new jobs and as the institutional and formal sectors are able to engage only one-third of the new entrants," said Debapriya Bhattacharya, executive director of Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), country's leading independent think-tank.

The last survey on labour force the BBS conducted was in 2000 and researchers believe there has been no reason for the employment scenario to improve in the following years. They say if the unemployment rate is updated it will produce a more alarming picture than the last.

One observes three very disturbing trends in the employment situation, said Debapriya:

First, contrary to the global trend, probability of remaining jobless is higher for the educated workforce.

Second, there is also a mismatch in demographic profile, as reemployment possibility for retrenched old workers is very low in the newly created job placements.

Third, underemployment is much higher in rural areas than the urban ones exacerbating the imbalance in spatial development.

The cost of mitigating the adverse consequences of these exclusionary employment trends may be more than that for implementation of a universal unemployment allowance scheme, Debapriya observed.

According to the United Nations Development Programme, poverty in Bangladesh is widespread with an estimated 49.8 percent of the population living below the national poverty line.

Unemployment and underemployment keep the poverty cycle going, notes the UNDP, adding, lack of job opportunities and limited agricultural land make it difficult for people, specially those in rural areas, to break the vicious cycle.

Rushidan Islam Rahman, research director of Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS), said though unemployment and underemployment rates are high the main problems are low productivity and income of workers.

Citing the very low salary structure of garment workers, many of whom get a mere Tk 1,000 per month, she said, "In many cases, the wage is too little even for an individual to live on. How can he or she then contribute to the family?"

The prevalence of joblessness among the educated youths has been on the rise fuelling their frustration, observed Rushidan identifying limited number of new jobs and poor standard of education as the main culprits.

According to a World Bank study, a continuation of the current low-growth trends in Bangladesh would only see the problem aggravated over time. Only high-growth rates along with labour market flexibility can make a dent in the syndrome.

The economy managed only a 4-percent annual GDP growth over the last 25 years leaving it distressingly dependent on foreign assistance for development, it said.

"Should this lacklustre performance be repeated in the next 25 years, the pressure of population, urbanisation and environmental degradation could leave Bangladesh right where it started -- at the bottom of the ladder of low-income economies. This is totally unacceptable," said the bank in 'Bangladesh 2020: A Long-Run Perspective Study'.

To achieve a substantial reduction in underemployment, Bangladesh needs to create over 5 crore jobs in the next 25 years, the bank projected.

Debapriya said, "We will have to engage the labour force in waged jobs, particularly in the labour-intensive manufacturing sector. But, other than garments, there is no significant diversification in the industrial structure."

"It also needs to be investigated whether, in a capital-scarce and labour-abundant country like Bangladesh, we are getting labour substituted by capital because of adverse relative pricing of the two factors," he said.

Presently two lakh people are going abroad every year and the country will have to expand and strengthen this overseas employment trend, he felt.