Why are Bangladeshi workers still dying preventable deaths?
Today marks eight years since one of the deadliest industrial disasters in modern history killed at least 1,132 workers and injured more than 2,500 others in our own backyard. The Rana Plaza collapse should have made us promise ourselves to never again allow any worker to die a preventable death as a result of a hazardous working conditions. Eight years later, this promise has been relatively well met in the case of RMG workers, largely as a result of the concerted efforts of the Bangladesh Accord. On the other hand, much less has happened to ensure the safety of workers in non-RMG and non-export oriented factories.
According to a survey of various national and local newspapers by the Safety and Rights Society (SRS), at least 2,677 workers have died due to lack of occupational health and safety measures between 2014 and 2019. On average, therefore, at least one worker died every single day in these six years. The annual figures were highest for the two most recent years: 2018 and 2019. In 2019, it found that these deaths occurred in five main sectors: the transport sector (37 percent), the construction sector (23 percent), the service sector (18 percent), the manufacturing sector (17 percent) and agriculture sector (five percent). Out of the 572 workers known to be killed in 2019, only two worked in garment factories. The abysmal state of occupational safety in non-RMG and non-export oriented factories can be understood through a few recent cases of occupational deaths.
On January 11, 2021, 15-year-old Mehedi Hasan went to a paper mill in Mymensingh for his nightshift but he never returned home. The next morning, his colleagues found his mutilated and bloodied body lying near the machine he was tasked with operating. He died after the machine malfunctioned and crushed him in the process. It was his third day of work. Mehedi had just completed his eighth grade with flying colours and was promoted to the ninth grade. He had joined the paper mill to work night shifts to be able to support his family and his own education, as he came from a single parent household, without a father. Locals told media that the factory was built illegally by occupying a canal, and that it was operating without obtaining proper permits from the authorities, primarily by employing child labourers like Mehedi. What is more is that wastepaper from the factory is openly burnt, causing severe damage to the environment.
In October 2019, another young worker named Masud Rana was crushed to death in the same paper mill by a malfunctioning machine which he was tasked with fixing. Locals at that time told press that the factory authorities had simply left his injured body lying on the floor without initiating what could have been a lifesaving trip the hospital. The factory manager later told press that Masud Rana died in an "unfortunate accident" due to his own carelessness. No case is known to be filed.
Similarly after Mehedi's death, the factory authorities told Jugantor that Mehedi had "fallen asleep on the conveyor belt" during his shift and that's what caused his "accidental" death, as per CCTV footage. Local police agreed with the manager's conclusion and said it was "clearly an accident" but mentioned that legal action would be taken against the factory if any fault is found. However, chances are, Mehedi's death will be ruled an "unfortunate accident" just like Masud's before him, and the factory will continue operating on and polluting an occupied canal, while using unrepaired machinery and killing child workers in the process.
Mehedi and Masud's deaths exemplify a common industrial practice: the refusal by employers to accept that these deaths were a direct result of the breach of their legal duty to ensure safe working conditions. Hazardous labour conditions which eventually kill workers are reduced to unforeseeable accidents, beyond human control. This tactic therefore allows employers to ignore the fact that these workers' lives could have been prevented if they did not breach their duty of care in the first place. This tactic is often coupled with another industrial practice: the refusal to accept that employers have a legal obligation to pay compensation to the family members of a deceased worker for the harm caused by their failure to protect their worker. Instead, paltry sums of money are usually paid by the employer in the name of "financial assistance" and touted as acts of benevolence. For if employers are able to wash off any responsibility by categorising workers' deaths as accidents, any amount they pay naturally gets treated as an act of charity.
On February 15, 2021, 16-year-old Tipu Sultan went to his night shift at a well-known paper mill like any other night. However, unlike other nights, this time he returned home in a body bag—after being tangled and crushed to death in a faulty machine he had been tasked with cleaning. The factory manager told press that Tipu was "in charge" of the machine and the "accident" happened as he attempted to clean "while the machine's belt was still running". Was it Tipu's fault that he was either pressurised into cleaning the machine, or even if he did it on his own, that he was not given basic safety training to know when it would be dangerous to clean the machine? Is ensuring workplace safety the duty of a 16-year-old on a night shift struggling to make ends meet, or that of his wealthy employer who profits from his cheap and exploitable labour?
The manager nevertheless proudly told Press Narayanganj that they gave Tk 10,000 for funeral expenses to Tipu's family and will be giving "financial assistance" in the coming days in collaboration with the local authorities. The manager therefore ignored the fact that the factory is bound by law to pay compensation to Tipu's family for his loss of life, which is a matter of right and quite apart from any paltry "financial assistance". Then again, the ease with which this tactic can be applied is unsurprising when so many companies continue to kill and maim workers, including children, in their relentless pursuit for profit, without paying a dime for the working class blood that is spilt in the process.
Undoubtedly, there are countless other workers like Mehedi, Masud and Tipu whose tragic yet preventable deaths occur not in large scale industrial disasters, but one by one, employed by people who treat their lives as disposable. Their deaths are not reported in the press and therefore remain completely outside our knowledge, but the human cost remains to accumulate. Why should we have to rely on an NGO to scan newspapers to provide an estimate on the number of workers killed in industrial "accidents" in the first place? It should fall on the Ministry of Labour and Employment to introduce a national database on workplace deaths and injuries to ensure transparency and fill the gap in official data. The repository should list the total number of workplace injuries and deaths in any given year, alongside the total number of compensation claims filed in all Labour Courts.
Real change can only take place when the real problem is acknowledged: corporations choosing labour exploitation as a standard business model and being allowed to treat their workers like they are disposable. A national database that counts every time a worker is killed or maimed is a necessary starting point in forcing industrial employers to do better and ensure that preventable deaths are, in fact, prevented.
Taqbir Huda is a Research Specialist at Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST) and coordinates Justice for All Now (JANO), Bangladesh. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org