In the World Happiness Report 2017, released on March 20, 2017, Bangladesh is ranked 110th out of 155 countries. In South Asia, the report places Bangladesh ahead of Myanmar (114), Sri Lanka (120), India (122), and Afghanistan (141) but behind Pakistan (80), Bhutan (97) and Nepal (99). The rankings are based on six measurement criteria: per capita gross domestic product (GDP), healthy life expectancy, freedom, generosity, social support and absence of corruption in government or business. To downplay the undue importance given to GDP growth, the report has included social and human development achievements to determine a country's happiness and wellbeing.
One of the major indicators used by the report for measuring happiness is quantity and quality of jobs. "When considering the world's population as a whole, people with a job evaluate the quality of their lives much more favourably than those who are unemployed", said the Report (Chapter 6: Happiness at Work).
Three distinct areas have been identified to assess happiness at work. These are 1) employment status; 2) types of work - blue collar (or manual) jobs versus white collar jobs; 3) characteristics of jobs meaning work-life balance, job security, health and safety, job satisfaction, and freedom at workplaces.
Now let us briefly analyse the Bangladesh situation with facts and figures to understand why the country is rated so low in the happiness index.
To start with the first area of measurement (i.e., employment status), Bangladesh's labour force is characterised by high rates of unemployment and underemployment, particularly among the youth. The official estimates by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) , however, show a very low workforce unemployment rate of 4.5 per cent and youth (15-29 years) unemployment rate of 9.3 per cent. Our common sense dictates that these figures do not seem to capture the true magnitude of unemployment in the country. Recently a local newspaper reported that there are 1.5 million educated unemployed youth. Although no reliable estimate is available, it is believed that as high as 40 per cent of the country's labour force is actually not in full-time employment - a characteristic known as underemployment.
The second area focuses on the types of jobs that determine the happiness levels. For example, manual labour is systemically correlated with lower levels of happiness. Majority of the Bangladeshi workers (or 73.9 per cent of the total) are engaged in occupations like agriculture, fisheries and forestry, craftsmen and elementary occupations which are traditionally manual in nature. Compared to this, about a quarter of the employed persons are found in predominantly white collar occupations: managers, professionals, technicians, clerical support and services and sales workers.
The next category is job quality in which Bangladesh's score is probably the lowest among the three.
What actually is job quality? It includes work-life balance, autonomy, variety, job security, social protection, freedom, non-discrimination, and health and safety at work. One of the main reasons for low job quality in Bangladesh is that very high percentage of workforce is in vulnerable employment. For example, more than 60 per cent of the labour force has oral contracts against 36 per cent having written contracts (BBS estimates). More than 84.7 per cent of the employed persons (49.7 million strong) are engaged in informal employment. Such informal employment is usually characterised by low productivity, low earnings, hazardous working conditions, precarious contracts, and poor safety and health standards at work. Moreover, women, young people, and child labourers are represented disproportionately in the informal employment. This indicates existence of significant discrimination at workplace. On top of those, the informal workplaces remain beyond any kind of monitoring or inspection. For example, BBS, in its Quarterly Labour Force Survey Report (January, 2016), commented: "The informal employment rate is considered as an important indicator regarding the quality of employment in an economy".
Bangladesh needs to improve workplace safety records as it had witnessed in the past several tragic industrial accidents. Sectors with high accident rates and occupational hazards are construction, ship breaking, leather tannery, transport, RMG - to name only a few. Accident statistics is hard to come by. A reputed daily newspaper, quoting an NGO source, reported that 1,240 workers were killed at their workplaces during 2016.
Finally, freedom of association and collective bargaining, a basic indicator of quality of work, face hurdles. Weak capacity of labour institutions and negative employers' attitudes are the main reasons for this. Only less than 4.0 per cent of the country's workforce is organised, meaning that only a tiny fraction of the workforce has union membership.
Now, how to address some of the above-mentioned issues?
First, the current momentum of steady GDP growth rate needs to be continued. Bangladesh has been successful in sustaining a steady GDP growth of more than 6.0 per cent per annum since 2000s. This has resulted in major job creation, particularly in non-agricultural sectors including manufacturing and services.
Second, more efforts are needed towards transformation of the economy away from agriculture to industry and services. These will require, inter alia, increased investments (both public and private), diversification of the economy and technological upgradation, and more investments in education and training that will move the workforce towards higher productivity and income.
Third, and the most difficult task, is to improve compliance with the national laws and the labour standards. This means strengthening of the labour inspection system and other labour administration machinery. Such strengthening, to be successful, should include spontaneous participation of two important actors: employers and workers' organisations.
To conclude with a positive note, the government of Bangladesh, with the support of ILO, other external donors, international organisations, employers and workers' organisations, has successfully initiated programmes for improving working conditions, mainly in the garment sector, including a strong focus on strengthening of labour inspection. Despite the initial achievements, the biggest challenge is how to mainstream the externally-driven initiatives within the national system and to replicate these on a broader scale.
The writer, a former ILO official, is a freelance consultant.