Safety in workplace is a given for most of us. If you are reading this newspaper, there is a high likelihood that you don't have to worry about the walls crumbling around you or the floor collapsing right beneath your feet. In case of work-related accidents, our employers are obligated to compensate in a way that can help us tide over the traumatic period till recovery, or at least pay the hospital bills. It should be the same for workers and labourers in blue collar jobs, or at least that's what the law says, but as is the norm in the country, laws are made to not be implemented.
Which is probably why the fact that 294 workers were killed while 101 workers were grievously injured (Bangladesh Occupational Safety Health and Environment Foundation) in the first three months of this year does not shock us. This is commonplace in our country, as is the fact that last year, 1,240 people had to give up their lives in workplace accidents while 544 workers were injured. To compare, the number of deaths in workplace related accidents was 951 in 2015 and 465 in 2014. You would think that after the Rana Plaza collapse, and formulation of the Labour (Amendment) Act 2013, which – at least in paper - introduced several provisions aimed at improving safety at workplaces, the situation would be better. But as the figures prove, in the recent past the only year which showed a sharp decline in workers' deaths and injuries was 2014 – the year following the Rana Plaza collapse. Does this indicate that we need another large scale industrial disaster for the authorities to 'work' toward improving the conditions of workers? Because as can be witnessed from the number of worker deaths in 2014, the only way to attract the attention of concerned authorities seems to be attracting the attention of the world in general.
An Action Aid survey revealed that of the 1,400 Rana Plaza survivors, nearly half were still jobless while around 31 percent were “too traumatised to work.” Workers like Shilpi Begum, who lost an arm in the disaster, worry about the fate of her three daughters, as her husband has a chronic illness that prevents him from working. Shilpi, on the other hand, can't get a job as she alleges that factories are reluctant to hire a physically disabled person. She already has had to stop the education of her three children and fears that if the situation remains unchanged, her kids may have to enter the workforce. “I want to return to work just so that my daughters don't have to work to sustain our family, and can continue with their studies,” she says, “But how can I ensure that?”
According to the Bangladesh Labour (Amendment) Act 2013, Tk. 1 lakh will be allocated as compensation for the family of a deceased worker, while Tk. 1,25,000 was approved for a permanently disabled worker, regardless of the worker's basic wage. In case of prolonged workplace related illness, the law allocates half a month's salary for around two years. Primary wage earners, like Shilpi Begum, who lost their source of livelihood in workplace related accidents, ask how are they to sustain their household until they find a job when their medical costs is almost that of the compensation they receive?
We can argue that there is at least a framework that operates to ensure the safety of garment workers in their workplaces following the Tazreen fire and the Rana Plaza incident. Factories are under constant pressure from international organisations and buyers to improve their working conditions, and to make their buildings more worker-friendly. Perhaps because the garments industry is under the spotlight, there is at least some discussion going on which seeks to improve the life of workers employed in this sector. For workers in other sectors, however, the neglect is far more cavernous.
In 2016, a fire, allegedly from a boiler explosion, at the Tampaco Foils factory in Tongi, which used to package various items for international brands, killed at least 26 people. Lingering heavy smoke and the risk of the building collapsing further had hampered the search and rescue operations. According to Mikhail Shipar, Government Secretary to the Ministry of Labour and Employment, the four-storied building was supposed to be one-storied and this was one of the reasons why it carried the risk of collapsing, further endangering the lives of the workers. In another boiler explosion in a Dinajpur rice mill recently, 17 workers were killed while at least 31 people were injured.
Reports on the latest boiler explosion revealed that there are 5,000 authorised boilers in use, with the remaining 20,000 boilers being unauthorised. With only six government inspectors to check if the boilers are safe, it is no wonder that so many of these apparatuses are operating unauthorised, increasing the risk of fatal accidents. Given the lack of manpower resources, something that our government so often cites as an excuse for their inability to get the work done, it is more or less impossible to ensure the safety of boilers in the country. Moreover, the workers operating the boilers are most often untrained and usually mishandle this equipment, which increases the risk of accident.
Despite assurances for maintaining building codes and safety measures after disasters of the scale of Tazreen and Rana Plaza, what's baffling is how such industrial disasters are still allowed to take place. These were completely preventable incidents where a little foresight, diligence from the authorities concerned, and continued attention could have saved many lives.
It's not just fires, collapses and accidents that consume the lives of workers, though. Let's consider the slow poisoning of our ship-breaking and tea workers, who have to work and live in structures that contain asbestos, a mineral that can cause cancer affecting the lungs and abdomen. An investigation by the Bangladesh Occupational Safety Health and Environment Foundation discovered that out of the 101 workers of a shipbuilding company, 33 were inflicted with acute asbestos poisoning while over 60 percent asbestos was found in the body of eight shipbuilding workers. According to a report published in The Daily Star (“Tea Workers at Cancer Risk”, April 14, 2017), tea workers in the Sylhet region are constantly exposed to asbestos, thanks to the use of the mineral in the roofs of these workers' house. Incidentally, these houses are built by tea garden owners who, whether deliberately or without knowledge, are responsible for the slow death of their workers.
The Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) have argued that even though the labour law has been amended to include the creation of safety committees in factories with more than 50 workers, and the inclusion of emergency exists and mandatory use of personal safety equipment, Bangladesh is yet to ratify occupational safety health related ILO conventions (particularly ILO Convention 155, Article 4). In a joint study (Occupational Safety and Health in Bangladesh, June 2015), they have asked for the government to bring all workers (formal and informal) within the purview of the Bangladesh regulatory framework, as they argue that safety for all workers cannot be ensured by keeping “large numbers of workers unprotected from the coverage of the labour law.” Their recommendation that law enforcement should be “investigation driven” rather than one that “reacts to complaints” could actually help our government, industries and law enforcement agencies ensure occupational safety of our workers.
The foolhardiness of employers who fail to protect the safety and health of their workers, pushing them instead to the deep abyss of danger, is bewildering. We are not even appealing to the humanity of these people but are rather questioning their business sense. How is using cheap materials to build your workplace, herding your workers in tiny, confined rooms, not giving them days off to recover and return to work with a fresh mind, helping your business in the long run? Eventually, such corrupt, exploitative, slave-driving establishments are forced to shut down, one way or another. A happy workforce is a productive workforce; how can intelligent 'businessmen' fail to understand this?
The writer is a member of the editorial team, The Daily Star.