Livelihoods – Bangladesh

Indigenous workers face unemployment and destitution in the wake of the pandemic

Sanjeeb Drong

It is widely recognized that indigenous peoples are among the most vulnerable and marginalized communities in Bangladesh. Historically, the country’s indigenous population has faced systematic discrimination, injustices and gross human rights violations, from destruction of forests and land grabbing to forced assimilation and educational exclusion. Decades of state-sponsored population transfers have also led to indigenous peoples becoming minorities in their own territories. Some indigenous communities even face the terrible threat of extinction. The government’s International Mother Language Institute conducted an ethno-linguistic survey and published a report in 2019. This survey found 41 mother tongues in Bangladesh, of which 39 are spoken by indigenous communities – and 14 of those are at risk of disappearing.

It is unsurprising, then, that COVID-19 has impacted the lives and livelihoods of indigenous peoples with particular severity. An indigenous non-governmental organization (NGO), Indigenous Peoples Development Services (IPDS), conducted a survey in June 2020 among indigenous peoples in the plainlands, spanning 28 districts, 1,205 families and 35 different indigenous communities. The results showed that some 92 per cent of community members had experienced a sharp loss of income due to the pandemic. As a result, the number of plainlands indigenous people living in extreme poverty had increased by 62 per cent since the beginning of the crisis.

A major cause of this sharp drop in living standards is the precarious nature of the employment in which Bangladesh’s indigenous peoples are generally engaged. Of respondents to the survey who had previously been in paid employment, 72 per cent had as a result of the crisis either been immediately laid off or furloughed, which, in the context of Bangladesh, means discharged from their duties with little or no compensation except for a promise of reinstatement at some future date. On top of this, access to emergency assistance among plainlands indigenous peoples is extremely limited. Over 60 per cent of respondents reported having received no relief whatsoever from either the government or NGOs since the beginning of the pandemic.

According to a survey in June 2020 among indigenous peoples in the plainlands, some 92 per cent of community members experienced a sharp loss of income due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The issue of job precarity is especially acute in the garment sector, beauty parlours and domestic service, which are fields where large numbers of indigenous women and girls are employed in Bangladesh. The lack of employment protection and benefits in these sectors has meant that the country’s indigenous peoples have been highly vulnerable to a sudden and complete cessation of income as the economic impacts of the pandemic began to be felt. The gendered impacts of the crisis have been especially wide ranging, with female respondents reporting increased threats of rape and harassment, additional domestic labour and limited access to sexual and reproductive health services.

The impact on employment has had further knock-on effects for indigenous peoples living in urban rented accommodation. The sudden cessation of income has meant that they are having to take on debt in the form of deferred rental payments, forcing many into arrears. As a result, some are considering returning to their home villages. Their plight has been worsened by the fact that, in many cases, landlords have prevented them from leaving for their villages until rents are settled. This has led to distress sales of land and other assets by rural kinship groups to repay rent. The scale of this problem has been impossible to gauge.

Other key issues raised by the study include increased reports of racism and violence, inequitable distribution of humanitarian supplies and an increase in overt racism. For example, indigenous peoples with Tibeto-Burmese features report ‘corona’ as a new racial slur. Dedicated efforts by the government to address the particular problems of social, economic and political exclusion faced by indigenous peoples in general have been very limited. While a ‘Development Assistance for Special Areas’ fund exists under the Prime Minister’s Office specifically for this purpose, its efforts are inadequate and poorly targeted. This speaks both to the specific issue of the pandemic and its secondary impacts, as well as the more general problem of the lack of recognition of indigenous peoples in Bangladesh. With thousands of indigenous migrant workers involved in informal sectors such as domestic work and garment manufacturing, the limited financial assistance for low-income and precarious workers must be significantly increased, with more effective targeting of indigenous peoples in remote areas in particular, if they and their families are to survive this difficult time.


Photo: Indigenous women harvest paddy in Chittagong Hill Tracks in Bangladesh. Eleven indigenous communities live in the hilly lands and are dependent on Jhum crops. Jhum is the main crop for the tribal communities living in the area. Credit: Rehman Asad / Alamy Stock Photo.