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29.04.21

A researcher's reflections on our learning brief on decent work

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Judith Vollebregt
Judith Vollebregt Associate Consultant Catalystas Consulting

In the summer of 2020 I was happy to be part of the Catalystas Consulting team to take on an assignment from YBI, and assist their member organisations Bangladesh Youth Enterprise Advice & Help Center (B’YEAH) and Bharatiya Yuva Shakti Trust (BYST) in India to develop a training of trainer and share the lessons with YBI’s wider network.

According to the International Labour Organization, decent work means “opportunities for women and men to obtain decent and productive work in conditions of freedom, equity, security and human dignity.” A huge concept, including occupational health and safety, non-discrimination, decent wages and and the right of employees to form trade unions. Major takeaways from undertaking research and providing training on decent work in the Indian and Bangladeshi context which we observe overlapping with global trends include:

1. There's so much content on decent work but it’s often geared toward multinational corporations which does not often apply or translate easily to start-ups and small businesses

For several sub-topics, there is guidance that specifically applies to small businesses and start-ups, for example for health and safety at work; however, the overall concept of Decent Work is not applied to the unique challenges of small businesses. Solopreneurs and micro, small and medium-sized enterprises (MSMEs) have small profit margins and are less likely to meet decent work benchmarks when compared to larger enterprises due to lower wages, poor working conditions in terms of health and safety, and a lack of social security and fall outside of existing regulatory frameworks. In the case of Bangladesh and India, there is little to no guidance for smaller businesses outside existing local labor laws, and the majority of regulations carve out exceptions for smaller businesses.

2. Employee retention is the main reason for businesses to follow Decent Work principles.

We found that small businesses and start-ups would follow regulations if they apply to their business. If however, like in India and Bangladesh, not all regulations include small businesses, and small businesses are more likely to create their own standards to fill the gaps. When talking to the entrepreneurs, a lot of them indicated that staff turnover is a big problem: more experienced staff would often move on to larger companies that could provide better working conditions. While small businesses might not be able to match those salaries, there are ways they can improve their working conditions without additional costs, for example by paying salaries on time or allowing more flexibility in working hours and allowing people to work from home. Where written contracts are not appropriate because of illiteracy, they can be replaced by voice messages or pictorial contracts, this can prevent staff from being fired unexpectedly but also from leaving without notice. Tying decent work to employee satisfaction and retention benefits all.

3. Decent work is a process.

Decent Work principles are not going to be implemented perfectly overnight. For small businesses struggling to survive in a competitive world, it will be impossible to have a perfect working environment. The COVID-19 pandemic has added additional health and safety risks and challenges, and businesses are primarily trying to survive. Still, what you learn when you’re young, you’ll remember for the rest of your life. If a small and growing business creates a good working environment, it will continue to do so once it becomes a large business.

Judith Vollebregt is an Associate Consultant at Catalystas Consulting, with a wide interest in anything related to fragile contexts and entrepreneurship. She has experience in program management, market research and evaluations. The decent work research and training were conducted by a Catalystas Consulting team including Beatrice Maneshi, Tiffany Sprague, Cindy Berman and Judith herself.

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