A life=Tk 1 lakh
Workers of Outwear Fashions Ltd take to the streets in Sheorapara in the capital demanding better pay and longer maternity leave. They blocked Rokeya Sarani and called on garment workers of other factories to join them. The workers of other
factories, however, refused. Photo: Palash Khan
In theory, human life is priceless. But under Bangladesh's labour law, a worker's life is worth just Tk 1 lakh ($1,250).
In a country where industrial deaths and injuries are high, the labour law should have stringent provisions to oblige owners to adequately support workers and their families in case of workplace accidents, rights activists and labour leaders say.
They note that stricter laws will discourage owners from violating safety codes and putting workers' lives at risk to minimise costs.
At present, however, compensation provisions in the country are among the worst in the world.
In China, Bangladesh's main competitor in the garment sector, the compensation, including a one-time package, funeral benefits and monthly instalments, is about Tk 78 lakh, according to China Labour Bulletin.
“In a country where a worker's life is worth only Tk 1 lakh, is it a surprise that the death toll [in industrial accidents] is so high?” asks labour leader Nazma Akhtar.
The recently proposed amendment to the labour law leaves the old provisions untouched, setting a maximum Tk 1 lakh in compensation for accidental deaths and Tk 1.25 lakh for those disabled for life.
Contacted, labour and employment ministry Secretary Mikail Shipar told the Daily Star, “We aren't currently focusing on compensation in our proposed amendment as we've recently doubled the insurance for workers to Tk 2 lakh.”
However, labour activists argue that insurance claims, which insurance companies are supposed to meet, are no alternative to compensation from owners.
Activists demand that a dead worker's family should be given compensation equal to at least his lifetime's earnings, taking into consideration the bonuses and increments the worker would have got over the years.
In their view, a worker who dies at the age of 20 earning Tk 5,000 a month should get around Tk 24 lakh in compensation, assuming he would have retired at 60. The amount would be much higher if the benefits and pay increases he would get all these years are considered.
The same method should be followed to calculate compensation for permanently disabled workers, they insist.
Garment owners, however, maintain it is impossible for them to pay such a big sum.
“How will the industry run if we pay such a large amount?” a garment owner asked, requesting anonymity.
Abu Sina, director of Areana Garments, reiterated the labour secretary's assertion that workers would now be paid Tk 2 lakh through group insurance. “Besides, most owners pay more than Tk 1 lakh anyway.”
In most countries, especially in developed ones, workers and their families can file cases against owners in civil courts over workplace accidents.
“In Bangladesh, too, workers can theoretically do that. But the process is so lengthy and expensive that it often takes more than 20 years for a case to be resolved,” said rights activist Sara Hossain.
Unlike civil cases where the court takes into account an individual's extent of loss, his annual income and the extent of culpability of the owner before settling the compensation, the labour law offers just a fixed lump sum amount.
Many countries, including India and Pakistan, have separate laws which clearly set out workers' right to compensation for injury or death.
In Bangladesh, the Workers' Compensation Act 1923 has instead been repealed with the enactment of the labour law.
The current compensation provisions do not even comply with the standards set by the International Labour Organisation, said Mojibor Rahman Bhuiyan, vice-president of Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies.
And although stipulated by law, most companies do not have group insurance for workers. The very few that do often pay only a few instalments, he added.
According to the ILO Convention 121, a worker or his family is entitled to at least 60 percent of his prior earnings as periodical payment for temporary or permanent disability, and 50 percent for the death of a breadwinner.
According to a calculation done by the ILO after the Tazreen Fashions fire in November last year, each victim's family should be given at least Tk 28 lakh in compensation, considering inflation, bonuses and children's education.