Savar tragedy sheds light on workers' safety
It has become a common newspaper heading for the last few years that workers have died of some sort of accident to at their workplaces. The epic tragedy of “Rana Plaza” is one of the most unfortunate mass deaths this country has seen.
Before this, the fire break-outs took more than 100 lives in “Tazreen Fashions” factory in Ashulia, 25 lives in “Garib and Garib” garments factory in Gazipur and eight in Shampur, Dhaka.
In most cases, according to various news reports, investigation team(s) has been working to find out the internal malfunctions resulting into such devastations.
The police said charges would be brought against the owners of the factories possibly for manslaughter, which is a form of unlawful killing. But the truth is there is no specific law for punishment of the persons responsible.
Even if punishment is inflicted under the Penal Code, putting a few of the factory owners behind bars is not going to improve the neglecting attitude of the owner class.
The Labour Act 2006 and building codes of Bangladesh specifically prescribed the safety measures that ought to be taken in industrial buildings.
Sadly, the punishment for whittling away from those statutory requirements and more importantly the compensation that is paid for a death resulting from such negligent maneuver is way too inadequate.
The dead workers' families are likely to get around Tk 2 lakh each as compensation money under the Labour Act 2006 and around Tk 1 lakh from group insurance which are inhumanly nominal.
Such compensations, which are not satisfactory at all, will neither adequately recompense the families nor put effective financial pressure on the owners.
It is crucial now to introduce preventive and punitive measures for these. It has been long established that corporations/companies being fictional legal entities cannot commit murder.
However, they can commit manslaughter, and recently, a revolutionary enactment has been passed in UK -- the Corporate Manslaughter and Corporate Homicide Act 2007 (CMCHA) -- creating the offence of “corporate manslaughter”.
The offence can be committed only by organizations, not by individuals.
The punishment, if a company is held guilty, is severe fines and civil compensation along with remedial orders that would compensate the unfortunate families appropriately and make the company more careful.
According to the famous website www.workers.org, around 414 workers have been burnt to death in Bangladesh during 2006-09, which could be, most likely, corporate manslaughters.
Even in 2010, at least 40 garment workers were burnt to death and witnesses in most cases reported that emergency exit doors and stairway gate were locked resulting in such disasters.
The website embodies the worldwide reaction to these mishaps by saying that it would be entirely too simple to blame the conditions of Bangladeshi workers solely on the country's ruling class.
This would be ignoring the reality of imperialist globalisation. Companies and financial institutions in the imperialist world dictate working conditions in the third world countries like Bangladesh.
In every big tragedy in the last few decades where companies and financial institutions were involved, nominal compensations were paid to the deceased workers' families and the owners got off the hook without further accountability.
Most of the times, such compensations range from Tk 1-2 lakh as if human life is that cheap and the companies at fault would not even bother to rectify the actual cause behind the tragedy.
When a factory owner takes in workers numbered in thousands and pushes them into unsafe and unplanned buildings and locks the doors in the name of preventing theft, it seems they only see a thousand working live machine worth a few lakhs.
Even, there is no stringent liability imposed or yardstick set on them by the government.
It has become a must now that a law equivalent to the CMCHA is passed in our country to entail strict statutory liability upon the owner class.
With the law, the court would be able to make a company pay 5 percent of its turnover as fine and civil compensation to be paid separately.
The fine would be designed to punish the company and set examples to other companies running business in potentially risky manners.
Under such law, the judiciary would have the power to make publicity orders by which the company at fault would be required to publish the nature of their offence and the penalties imposed in national media.
Such publicity orders are very effective to punish large corporations, as those will leave adverse impact upon the companies' reputation.
The court will also have the jurisdiction to order for arrest and prosecution of the directors of guilty companies, pass remedial orders and direct them to correct their faults.
Additional to this corporate liability, the directors of such companies would be vulnerable to criminal charges, a combined effect of which would force them to act more sincerely.
At present, the poor workers sit with the employers for negotiation and are compensated at a degrading rate for their invaluable life.
It matters less than nothing to the family of the poor demised souls whether the persons responsible for such atrocity are put behind bars; what can actually conciliate their mourning is a good amount of compensation.
The truth, as it seems, is that there can be no unequivocal settlement between the rich and the poor, between the corporate giants and less than $2 per day paid workers of a third world country, and hence judicial intervention is duly warranted.
By passing the CMCHA, it was graciously pointed out that no matter what, workers' rights are more important than industrialists making profit.
It is about time that the same sympathetic approach is echoed by us and an act equivalent to CMCHA is passed as a tribute to the underprivileged working class.
The writer is a barrister-at-law.