What the Tax Rebate Actually Means for the Bangladeshi Transgender Community


TRANS EMPLOYMENT — BANGLADESH


Iffat Zarif


On 3 June, it was announced that the government has included a special tax rebate for transgender employment in the proposed 2021-22 budget. To provide incentive to firms to hire transgender people, it would waive 5% of the corporate tax for any company where transgender employees either number over a 100 or account for more than 10% of the total workforce.

The proposal was met with instant approval from both inside and outside the community. Because, at first glance, it looks like a perfect move for encouraging transgender employment and paving the way for the improvement in living standards and social inclusion of the marginalised community, a large proportion of whom now have to resort to begging and sex work for survival.

“If corporations employ us, we will be able to work like other human beings,” stated a transgender woman named Bonoful to Dhaka Tribune.

And while that would certainly be an extremely desirable outcome, some experts remain sceptical about its possible effectiveness. Because, let’s face it, when it comes to the transgender community, the Bangladeshi government and private corporations’ track records aren’t great. Not least when it comes to their employment.

Definition of Hijra: An eternal confusion

Take the 2015 incident, for example—the only other widely documented instance when the government had taken an initiative for transgender employment. The Ministry of Social Welfare had asked hijra people—a South Asian umbrella term for transwomen and intersex people—to apply for government jobs. But, after a round of humiliating interviews, came the even more humiliating and traumatising medical examinations, where the hijra people were harassed, jeered at, and sexually assaulted only to be labelled ‘fake’ hijra people and to have their photos released online and in print. It was said that they were ‘really men’ dressed as women to get government jobs since they had male genitals… which clearly implies that the officials, despite being appointed to oversee their employment, had no idea about trans identity (people who don’t identify with their assigned gender but still may have the genitals of that gender, unless they choose to or have the ability to undergo surgery). 

The incident only served to increase the harassment the hijra people faced in the public sphere due to the photos that were released.

When talking to The Dhaka Apologue about this, Hochemin Islam, a transgender activist and nurse, stressed the need for an end to the fake hijra/real hijra debate and added, “You can examine my body. But how can you examine my soul?”

“[The Bangladesh government] urgently needs to implement a rights-based procedure for [transgender] recognition. Anything less will leave hijra people exposed to further abuses,” said Human Rights Watch in 2016, following the incident. 

Now, six years later, it isn’t clear if the government has a better idea of the identities. It would seem not, considering the fact that the Department of Social Services continues to define hijra as ‘sexually disabled’ people—which encompasses neither intersex nor transgender people—without consulting the people from the community they’re trying to describe.

Similar lack of awareness is seen among the general cisgender population too, most of whom are either intolerant of the community or think that they only consist of intersex people. As a result, without a proper definition or set-out procedures for identification, the cisgender officials or potential employers get to judge trans people’s authenticity based on their incorrect or overly narrow idea of trans identity. 

Risk of discrimination and harassment

Asked about the risk of harassment and discrimination in any recruitment programmes set up as a result of this rebate, Hochemin Islam said that, “Of course, they’ll face discrimination. They don’t think of us as human beings—they think of us as sex objects. So, there’s a huge chance of being harassed, of being sexually exploited.”

That is the sobering reality here: that the transgender people are discriminated against and harassed constantly everywhere they go, whether it’s on the streets or in a workplace. Social stigma and lack of education forces most into begging and sex work, and though some do take up jobs in restaurants and garments factories, they are generally unable to maintain these jobs for long due to teasing, sexual assault, and harassment.

So, now, with no monitoring body or working conditions clause attached to the tax rebate, the situation isn’t likely to be very different. Especially since the companies will in all likelihood not be providing any sensitisation trainings to the cisgender colleagues and supervisors to give them an awareness and understanding of gender-diverse identities. Lack of awareness can thus easily breed intolerance, making the workplace unsafe for transgender people. 

Plus, organisational policies against discrimination and harrasment do not extend to trans people in words or at least in practice. Neither do the state laws. So, the trangender people cannot even go to the authorities to report. 

“The 5% tax rebate would’ve definitely been a very important step if the government had strengthened the human rights policies first,” said Lamea Tanjin Tanha, founder of TransEnd, an organisation that aims to help the marginalised gender-diverse community of Bangladesh. “If they’d ensured that there wouldn’t be workplace harassment, that corporates and cisgenders would be sensitised, and that trans employees would get proper training.”

The corporate initiatives: Simply tokenistic gestures?

In recent years, we’ve heard about a lot of firms hiring transgender workers. And, while that’s undoubtedly a good thing, we can’t help but wonder where their intentions lie—if they really wish to employ trans people from a place of concern and a belief that they deserve to get work just like the rest or, if they’re just looking to garner public approval. Because, the latter would make their attempts only half-hearted at best—hiring for the sake of hiring with no intention of training and development—and traumatising at worst.

Evan Ahmed Kotha, a leader of the transgender community, when talking Dhaka Tribune, said that although earlier, many companies and business organisations in the name of employing two or three members of the transgender community have increased their face value and drawn the attention of the media, “nobody knows what happened after that.”

The tax rebate now could encourage many more companies to try to make such tokenistic gestures. And this time the public approval would only be the cherry on top of a 5% tax cut cake.

If they find hiring 100 transgender workers profitable, they would go ahead with it, not worrying about the baggage that comes with it—the sensitisation, the vocational trainings, or the strengthening of the organisational policies against discrimination to include and protect trans staff—because, of course, they never plan to pick up the baggage anyways.

To be sure, not every employer and every company would do this. Just like not every supervisor or every colleague would discriminate or harass. However, even a handful can make the workplace unbearable and unsafe to the transgender employees. So, it is imperative that we speak out and do something to prevent it in the future.

Will they actually even hire?

The feasibility and profitability of hiring a hundred transgender people has also been called into question.

A member of Dhaka Chambers of Commerce and Industries (DCCI) told Dhaka Tribune, “Undoubtedly, this is a praiseworthy decision. But in reality, employment for them in factories and companies is challenging due to the mindset of mainstream society and a lack of educational background of the Hijra people.”

Hochemin Islam here points the issue of trauma in relation to productivity as well. She says, “You can’t just give them work, and expect the same productivity from them as the cisgender men and women. They have been fighting against society for years—they are traumatised. It’ll take time and a fair amount of counselling and training for them to reach the same level.” And, she too stressed the need for strengthening organisational policy against sexual harassment to include and protect trans staff.

The transgender people need to be trained too to allow them to work at the same pace. And, although the government arranges training sessions occasionally, their real benefit is yet unknown. 

A recognition nevertheless . . .

Despite the aforementioned risks, however, the fact that the government recognised transgender people in the national budget is in itself praiseworthy. If nothing else, it shows that the government is thinking about these people, that it wants to improve these people’s lifestyle, that it’s signalling the country’s citizens to do their part for these people as well.

Just like Hochemin Islam had put it: “It’s a message from the government to the other citizens: they can do work like us too.” She also added later, “Every movement is a long journey. This is a step forward.”

And that in itself makes us all hopeful for other developments in the future—an anti-discrimination or anti-harassment law, for instance, or an official definition of the third gender or hijra people that actually aligns with their lived identity. The “Hijra Protection Act” announced to be in the process of drafting back in March with the intention of ensuring the rights of every transgender child to live with their family and get inheritances, if passed and enforced, would be another commendable step. Hochemin Islam also suggested forming a board entirely of trans people to help go over the policies for trans people instead of having a bunch of cisgenders bickering over what’s right and what’s wrong for a community they’re not part of.

As stated by Tanha from TransEnd, “We’re glad that the government is talking about it—that at least it’s considering the transgender community in the budget for the first time this year, but when you skip so many steps, the results will just not be sustainable.”

 


The writer is a part of TDA Editorial team.

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