Disability prevalence data varies dramatically in Bangladesh. This is because there is no reliable data tracking mechanism for disability. Bangladesh’s latest decadal census, from 2011, reported disability prevalence at 1.4%—of which 1.3% was female and 1.5% male. Meanwhile, the Global Disability Report of 2019 found Bangladesh’s disability prevalence to be as high as 31.9%. Although most of the people with disability have some form of skill-set, the employment opportunities for them are limited.
According to various study reports and information gained from persons with disabilities, there is an extreme crisis, and concern, in Bangladesh regarding the employment of such persons. In most cases, employees with disabilities do not receive equal privileges to those received by their colleagues without any disability.
Despite strong legal protections, a large number of young people with disabilities are unemployed even after they have been able to attain higher education. The stigma of unemployment, coupled with the stigma of disability, has jeopardised the lives and dignity of youth with disabilities in Bangladesh.
On the global stage, world leaders have agreed to leave no one behind. In this light, Bangladesh must revisit its policies to uncover the state of exclusion or underrepresentation of persons with disabilities in the labour market. This is a first step in achieving the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.
History tells us that the laws of the land reflect the intention of the state. This article investigates Bangladesh’s intention with regard to ensuring access for persons with disabilities to the labour market, through an intensive review of the country’s legal framework. The article also explores what has worked well and what has not in the country’s equal employment opportunity agenda.
According to Bangladesh’s constitution, existing laws and various international human rights instruments, the recruitment process of both the public sector and the private sector should be inclusive for persons with disabilities.
Bangladesh’s constitution reflects its founding values. It states that, ‘There shall be equality of opportunity for all citizens in respect of employment or office in the service of the Republic.’ This is a fundamental right for any citizen. Any action or inaction by government or any law that excludes persons with disabilities from employment opportunities contradicts the constitution, and hence the country’s founding principles. In such a case, the aggrieved person can take the government to court.
Bangladesh has adopted the primary international treaty to protect the rights of persons with disabilities: the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). As a ratifying state, Bangladesh is responsible for eliminating disability-based discrimination by the government and non-governmental organisations. It is also the responsibility of Bangladesh to eradicate disability-based discrimination from the recruitment process.
In compliance with the CRPD, Bangladesh’s government has enacted its own law, the Rights and Protection of Persons with Disabilities Act (RPPDA) 2013. This essentially guarantees every person with disability the right to employment in the public or private sector. In other words, the recruitment process of all recruiting organisations should be designed so that all persons with disabilities can participate.
The country’s main disability protection law, the RPPDA has a commendably inclusive agenda. It encapsulates a whole range of equal opportunity and dignified working rights for persons with disabilities. Under the law, persons with disabilities should have reasonable accommodation at work. An eligible person with a disability shall not be barred from engaging in any suitable work on the grounds of their disability. According to the existing laws of Bangladesh, if there is a job recruitment test, this should cater to all persons with disabilities.
In Bangladesh, an employer cannot decide on their own what kind of job is suitable for people with disabilities.
Bangladesh has an interesting policy mechanism setup for disability-based employment. The country’s National Coordination Committee is empowered to decide on suitability of a job for different constituencies of disability. This means that an employer cannot decide on their own what kind of job is suitable for people with disabilities.
Bangladesh’s RPPDP defines ‘discrimination’ as treating people with disabilities more unfairly than people without disabilities.The person or institution is liable if they deprive anyone of the rights mentioned in the law. An application can be made to the local district-level committee for compensation against the person or institution caught discriminating.
The RPPDA guarantees a 360° rights package for equality of employment opportunity with regard to disability. It fundamentally guarantees other job-related rights like inclusive education, accessibility and social protection. To put the law into action, in 2019 Bangladesh formulated an implementation plan, known as the Disability Action Plan. This is essentially an affirmative action document.
According to Bangladesh’s Disability Action Plan, the government will:
- Specify a certain quota for persons with disabilities in entry- to mid-level public sector jobs. Currently, the government reserves 10% of these job openings for persons with disabilities and orphans;
- Issue instructions to international and private agencies to implement a 2% quota for persons with disabilities;
- Issue instructions to the corporate sector to ensure a quota of 10% of the workforce for persons with disabilities;
- Provide reserved seats for persons with disabilities in higher-level public sector jobs;
- Incentivise employers, such as through tax incentives, who recruit persons with disabilities (at least 2% of the total workforce).
A litmus test for the laws
Sudip Das is a youth with a visual disability. He is a lawyer who trained at the University of Chittagong in southern Bangladesh. Sudip took the entrance exam for a judiciary career conducted under the regulatory body, the Bangladesh Judicial Service Commission (BJSC). He received an admittance card to sit for three consecutive entrance exams for judicial service. His visual disability meant he needed a scribe’s support to take the exam. Shockingly, the exam authority did not allow him to take such support from a scribe.
His latest application for scribe support was submitted on 9 September 2021; the BJSC rejected this application within 10 days. As a result, Sudip entered the examination hall on 25 September without a scribe—and then walked out as a silent protest.
The BJSC’s rejection of Sudip’s application referred to two guidelines: the Bangladesh Judicial Service Rules 2007 and the Entry to the Bangladesh Judicial Service Order 2007. However, these two legal provisions are related to the health qualifications of the candidate. Moreover, they are applicable only in the aftermath of the entry exam, meaning after someone passes the preliminary, written and oral tests.
In Bangladesh, no one can be prevented from taking part in a recruitment test on the grounds of health.
In Bangladesh, no one can be prevented from taking part in a recruitment test on the grounds of health. In addition, the authority required to certify a candidate’s health status is a different one—namely, the Director General of the Department of Health. The BJSC does not have the authority to disqualify a candidate on health grounds. Thereafter, if a candidate with visual disabilities has passed all the assessment stages for a job, then the hiring decision can be taken only after consulting with another watchdog body—the National Coordination Committee.
Under Bangladesh’s legal framework, it was the responsibility of the BJSC to arrange facilities, such as a scribe, for Sudip within the entrance exam location. Whether or not he got the job was a post facto decision for the designated bodies, the medical board and the National Coordination Committee.
What the BJSC did tarnished Bangladesh’ equal employment opportunity mission. It violated several laws, including the very constitution of the land.
Sudip Das decided to fight for his right. He took the matter to the highest court of Bangladesh, the High Court Division of the Supreme Court. Unfortunately, however, the court dismissed his application. Two similar cases against government agencies have been pending in the High Court for 10 years!
In various countries, including India and Kenya, people with visual disabilities have successfully served as judges. In the case of Bangladesh, the judiciary has become more independent since 2007, when a policy decision was taken to have an independent recruitment stream for judges. Prior to that, judges and bureaucrats were recruited from the same pool. Thanks to the ceaseless efforts of nearly 2,000 officials working in Bangladesh’s judiciary, access to justice for the marginalised has increased significantly since the separation of recruitment in 2007. Closing the doors of the judiciary to persons with visual disabilities creates a non-inclusive image of this progress.
There is good news. People with visual disabilities have been participating regularly in entrance exams for government jobs. The elite Bangladesh Civil Service examination is a prime example.
Bangladesh’s largest political party, the Awami League, which is now in power, has campaigned to update
the old disability-focused policy, and later updated the RPPDA. The political will now exists to include persons with disabilities in the country’s economic progress.
However, a question now arises as to why, despite this political will, the situation remains unchanged on the ground. If the aforesaid policies are implemented properly, Bangladesh will be able to quickly engage 15.6 million employable persons with disabilities. They just need a fair shot!
Parliament to the rescue
Bangladesh has the right policies in place for equal employment opportunity. Proposing new policies may not resolve the problems that currently exist, which have more to do with implementation. Systemic strengthening requires a strategy where the parliament can oversee the implementing agencies.
Proposing new policies may not resolve the problems that currently exist…
- In Bangladesh, persons with disability-related issues are too often accessed via proxies—such as social organisations. The authorities should directly consult persons with disabilities in the decision-making process.
- Disability needs political representation. At least 4% of Bangladesh’s parliament, or 15 seats, should be reserved for persons with disabilities.
- The functional parliamentary bodies—the Parliamentary Standing Committees—should take stock of the government agencies and act as a monitoring body for these. Regular stocktaking will ensure the implementation of the relevant laws.
- The parliament should regularly review the legislation on disability and employment-related issues. Too often, government agencies formulate policies that are inconsistent with the designated ‘parent’ law.
- The parliament should not approve any national budget that has funding for non-inclusive, discriminatory activities. Similarly, the parliament should allocate adequate money to the implementation of laws enacted to protect persons with disabilities.
- Bangladesh should repeal the anti-CRPD provisions in the BJSC’s recruitment policies that bar the participation of people with visual disabilities.
 RPPDA Section 16, Section 35, Section 2.
 This Committee is constituted under the RPPDA and is headed by the social welfare minister, and comprises 28 members including 2 parliamentarians and 16 senior civil servants.
 Unfair treatment includes depriving a person with a disability or acting in a biased manner or refusing to provide any privileges or benefits owing to disability or providing fewer privileges or any other activities prescribed by the government.
 Bangladesh’s Judicial Service Commission referred to Sub-Rule 4 of Rule 5 of the Bangladesh Judicial Service (Service Formation, Recruitment and Temporary Dismissal, Dismissal and Removal) Rules 2007 and Article 10 of the Entry to the Bangladesh Judicial Service Order 2007.
 The Bangladeshi authority to certify a job candidate’s health status is a designated medical board formed by the main health care implementation authority, the Director General of the Department of Health.
 Sections 16 (1) (i), 16 (1) (m), 35 (1) and 36 (1) of the RPPDA, and CRPD mandates.
 Two written petitions have been filed against Bangladesh Judicial Service Commission (BJSC) and the Bangladesh Public Service Commission.
 The Disabled Welfare Act 2000.
Photo ©️ Mahmud Hossain Opu