In a conversation, Murteza Khan, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Bangladesh Business & Disability Network (BBDN), elaborates on the importance of ensuring access to employment for persons with disabilities and how the organisation is working to create diversified opportunities for the segment throughout Bangladesh.
According to the latest statistics (BBS), more than 5 million people in Bangladesh are identified as persons with disabilities. Why is it so crucial to ensure their access to education and employment?
Firstly, it is important to note that disability prevalence statistics in Bangladesh is a hotly debated issue with numbers being quoted as high as 9.07% (HIES 2010) or 6.94% (HIES 2016). Estimates by international agencies would put the range between 10% to 15% of the population in line with global norms.
Persons with disabilities are a part of our society and they are entitled to have the same rights as non-disabled citizens as enshrined in our constitution, which calls for non-discrimination. Bangladesh ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and enacted national legislation titled the Rights and Protection of Persons with Disability Act 2013, which calls for inclusive education and employment, as does our National Skills Development Policy. When these rights are denied, we are in violation of our national commitments to our own citizens. From an economic perspective, it has been estimated by the World Bank that the GDP loss due to the exclusion of persons with disabilities can range from 3% to 7%. The number may not seem high, but factoring in the productivity loss and opportunity cost, not only for persons with disabilities but the caregivers who have to attend to them when they are excluded, the impact is massive.
Over the years, the Bangladesh government has been incentivising the hiring of persons with disabilities with lucrative tax incentives. Have these measures helped widen the door of employment for the community?
While the tax incentive was gazetted in 2013 by the NBR, no process was outlined till the Finance Act 2020 (FA20), which provisioned for a 5% tax rebate on total payable tax for organisations that hire persons with disabilities to make up at least 10% of their workforce. The incentive was updated in the Finance Act 2022 (FA22) with an additional lower threshold added which states that the employment of at least 25 persons with disabilities will result in a tax rebate on 75% of the salaries paid to the employees with disabilities. However, the final incentive will be given based on whichever is the lower amount, either from the first threshold from FA20 or the second threshold from FA22. Most organisations are not aware of the tax incentive. As such, to our knowledge, this has not had a major impact as yet, though we welcome the incentive and we certainly encourage companies to avail it through a holistic process of disability inclusion.
Despite the progress, disabled individuals face a mountain of challenges when it comes to seeking employment in the country; they range from accessibility constraints to unequal pay. How is BBDN working to create diversified opportunities for disabled individuals?
BBDN broadly works in 3 areas, namely, inclusion services, advocacy and research, and awareness raising. We aim to change the mindset of different key stakeholders in our labour market system on the skills development side, the employment end, and the policy level. Once stakeholders are made aware of the relevant issues, we offer a range of activities that can be undertaken to build institutional disability confidence; for example, an employer can undergo an accessibility assessment for their premises and operations, review policies, undergo training such as sign-language or operating a Return to Work process for individuals who become disabled or injured through occupational accidents or diseases. We also organise events such as job fairs and targeted recruitment drives to create opportunities for persons with disabilities. In addition, on the policy advocacy side, we organise and participate in discussions to influence policymakers on issues related to inclusive skills development and employment, reviewing key legislative documents such as the Bangladesh Labour Act to identify gaps and propose amendments from a disability inclusion lens.
Capacity building is an essential aspect of facilitating employment generation. Could you please elaborate on BBDN’s skill development activities and approach?
BBDN works with partners to facilitate skills development of persons with disabilities. We have previously worked with government Technical & Vocational Training & Education (TVET) institutes in different parts of the country under the International Labour Organization (ILO) Skills-21 Program funded by the EU. Our primary role is to build the capacity of the training institutes to become disability inclusive, support them to develop action plans, and facilitate partnerships with local Organisations of Persons with Disabilities (OPDs), who play a key role in mobilising and motivating trainees with disabilities to partake in skills training. We aim to scale up this work with the ILO under the recently launched ProGRESS project led by the ILO and the Ministry of Education with funding from the Government of Canada. In addition, we are in the process of rolling out new skills development initiatives in collaboration with sector-specific employer associations and trusted mainstream training institutes that offer market-driven training. While BBDN does not directly provide the training, we orchestrate, build capacity and facilitate the entire system by working with partners to connect the dots for a meaningful training program.
As the CEO of BBDN, what has been the most rewarding aspect of your journey to date? How do you envision the growth of Bangladesh’s disabled community over the next five years, and what role do you want BBDN to play in it?
In the 6 years since launching, BBDN weathered the pandemic and successfully delivered on components of large programs funded by development partners, while collaborating with well-established local and international organisations. The network has blossomed and continues to progressively grow its membership, expertise and reach. In recognition of its work, BBDN received the Zero Project Award 2021 for Innovative Practice in Employment from the Business Sector. We’ve also had the opportunity to present our work at multiple international forums as a model business and disability network while advising on the launch of networks in other countries such as India and Nepal. We have been able to attain and maintain the trust of partners, which is best exemplified by the repeat projects we continue to collaborate on. While all this and much more has been a pleasure to be a part of, the most rewarding aspect of the work is when we experience an organisation sincerely evolving to become more disability inclusive or when I hear the success story of a person with a disability that we have been able to impact by opening the door to new and exciting training or employment opportunities. Our impact in terms of numbers reached is still a drop in the ocean in terms of what is needed in Bangladesh, though we now have a lot of learning in terms of what is needed to achieve scale.
Looking ahead to the next 5 years, I would like to see many more persons with disabilities attaining appropriate skills and gaining greater access to employment opportunities, while the world of work becomes more accommodating of disability inclusion. I would like to position BBDN as a key stakeholder in the ecosystem of disability-inclusive skills development, employment, social protection and policy influencing with the support of our network members, development partners and the government. Our impact needs to reach different corners of Bangladesh and cater to people with different types and severity of disability, by creating access to appropriate upskilling and livelihoods which could go beyond employment towards self-employment and other avenues. I believe BBDN can be the organisation that catalyses disability-inclusive employment in a meaningful and sustainable way with the introduction of appropriate and scalable solutions and synergistic collaborations with all key stakeholders.
The Bangladesh Business and Disability Network (BBDN) is a voluntary group of representatives from business, industry, employers’ organisations and selected non-governmental and disabled peoples’ organisations. BBDN has a primary purpose of facilitating disability and workplace diversity in Bangladesh from the perspective of business and human rights cases. BBDN aims to work with governmental, non-governmental, disabled peoples, educational, international and private voluntary organisations and the business community to share knowledge and information and engage in activities of mutual benefit related to disability in the workplace.
Photographs: Courtesy of BBDN