Compensating N’ganj Fire Victims: Company buys ‘legal immunity’
For a sum of Tk 2 lakh per deceased worker, Hashem Foods Ltd bought legal immunity from being prosecuted further.
When Hashem Foods gave Tk 2 lakh to the families of each dead worker, the company took an undertaking saying that the families have no more demand to make from it.
"I have no demands to make or claims left against the authorities of Hashem Foods Ltd concerning the death in the accident," said the undertaking, a copy of which was obtained by this correspondent.
The undertaking further stated, "I will lawfully distribute this money among the descendants of the deceased. If any claims arise later on, I will be responsible for solving them."
At least 54 workers and staffers died when a fire erupted in a factory of the company in Narayanganj on July 8. Forty-eight of them died, being trapped on the third floor with its lone exit locked, when the blaze engulfed the building.
Even though the labour law says that employers have to pay Tk 2 lakh in compensation for a workplace death, there is an existing writ petition that was filed with the High Court on July 11 by four organisations seeking Tk 5 crore in compensation for each of such families.
The organisations are Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK), Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST), Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (Bela) and Safety and Rights Society (SRS). The High Court has yet to make a judgment.
"We spoke to the families of workers and all of them signed an undertaking before receiving the money," said Mahtab Uddin Ahmed, who along with a team from Drik, did a research on the affected workers.
"However not everyone could read what they were signing to. A few who had smartphones took photos which they later shared with us," said Ahmed.
For example, 44-year-old Shahana's husband Mahtabuddin told the researchers that he did not know what he signed, nor was he read out the undertaking he was signing. When the researchers asked him why he signed something without reading, he said he was helpless and he could not read. "So many places asked for our national identity cards and we gave it. How do we say no?" Ahmed quoted Mahtab as saying.
Deceased 35-year-old worker Nazma's brother Faruk received the money on behalf of her family and he told the researchers that he signed something in English.
"I don't understand English, so I asked the authorities what was written there and they said that it is written that you are getting compensation," the researcher quoted Faruk as saying.
A report by a citizen's investigation committee formed to look into the factory fire also noted, "The workers had to sign an undertaking so that they cannot make any more demands regarding compensation from the authorities."
Barrister Jyotirmoy Barua who was a part of a citizen's investigation committee that looked into the incident said it is illegal to take such an undertaking.
Talking on the issue, Taqbir Huda, coordinator, Justice for All Now (JANO), said, "Forcing victims to make a blanket surrender of any further claims through this agreement and payment of 2 lakh taka highlights the immense power disparity that continues to define industrial labour relations."
"It is also an affront to labour and human rights since these victims may well be entitled to a number of other claims, such as unpaid wages as well as compensation from a group insurance scheme and from the pending writ petition filed by 4 NGOs on 11 July 2021 seeking Tk 5 crore in compensation for each of the families," said Huda.
Sajeeb Group's Senior General Manager (international markets) Kazi Abdur Rahman, said taking the undertaking did not mean the workers cannot make demands. "They are constantly making demands and we are trying to fulfill them," he said.
However when asked about legal claims for compensation made at court, he said he needs to speak to lawyers.
Barua said, "We are calling this Tk 2 lakh a donation. The issue of compensation is not settled yet."
"In the Raza Plaza case, the HC formed a committee to determine the amount of compensation and the committee suggested 17-25 lakh per claim. The case is still pending with the High Court."
Huda said, "Sajeeb Group was able to limit their liability to pay compensation to a measly sum of only 2 lakh taka for each worker killed by the deadly fire in their factory precisely because that is how little value our own labour law attaches to the life of a worker killed in an industrial 'accident'."