On Labour Day, I am reminded of 22-year-old Jewel Hossain, who in January this year, was conducting his evening shift at a polythene factory when the machine malfunctioned and the blade ripped through him and gouged one of his eyeballs out. A co-worker rushed to pull him out from the machine's grip and got injured in the process too. Jewel was rushed to a nearby hospital by his co-workers but was pronounced dead on arrival. Preliminary inquiries revealed that the factory was operating illegally "without the attention of the administration" (News Bangla 24).
In an ideal world, a 22-year-old would have been in university. But in an unequal world like ours, this 22-year-old was compelled to work in an illegally established polythene factory, teeming with dangerous machinery without being granted any basic safety equipment. Jewel's death did not make headline news—or any news for that matter. His death was only reported in one D-grade news website, based in his locality. Boys like Jewel are not worth our concern, and news of his gruesome yet wholly preventable death is not worth a pixel on our screen. His cheap and disposable life served its purpose in oiling the rear-engines of divine economic growth. I am sure Jewel's boss was able to replace him with another 22-year-old sooner than the soil above Jewel's body was able to set in. Even if Jewel's family sought justice under our labour law, the value prescribed to his life would only be Tk 2 lakh.
In 2006, Bangladesh Labour Act (BLA), our central labour legislation, was introduced to "consolidate" laws relating to workers in certain "industrial establishments". It repealed 25 older laws, all but two of which were passed before 1971. The main objective of introducing the BLA was to guarantee certain minimum rights for industrial workers, including the right to seek compensation for occupational injuries i.e. the amount of money an employer is liable to pay when a worker dies or is injured in the course of their work. The BLA initially fixed this amount to Tk 1,00,000 for death and Tk 1,25,000 for permanent total disablement. So rather than introducing a minimum amount of compensation that has to be paid to worker or their dependents in case of an occupational injury or death, the BLA set paltry sums as the maximum amounts. Did this introduction favour the workers the BLA set out to protect or the industrial employers it sets out to hold accountable?
Workers' rights activists have long demanded that compensation provisions should ensure that workers or their dependents are paid a fair amount of compensation that accurately takes into account the full extent of their financial and non-financial losses. After the Tazreen Fashion Fire in 2012, and the Rana Plaza Collapse in 2013, the compensation provisions in BLA came under widespread scrutiny. Yet in 2018, when the BLA was amended, our lawmakers simply doubled the amount payable for a worker's death under BLA from one Tk 1 lakh to Tk 2 lakh, without removing such an unjust limit in the first place. The sheer inadequacy and unjustness of the existing Tk 2 lakh limit under the BLA will become even clearer through a simple arithmetic calculation. Take for instance the case of Jewel. If we assume he had a monthly income of Tk 10,000, his annual income would therefore be Tk 1,20,000. After his untimely death, due to the failure of his employer to repair a faulty machinery, the total loss of income faced by his dependents (such as parents and younger siblings) would equal to Tk 1,20,000 (his annual income) multiplied by 38 (which is the number of working years he had left until the age of retirement, which is 60 under BLA). Therefore, the total loss of income alone would amount to Tk 45.6 lakh (without even adjusting his income for possible increase). Yet under the BLA, he would only be entitled to Tk 2.5 lakh, which is only around five percent of his total loss of income.
Yet even after having such a limited extent of liability, from my analysis of Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust's records on Labour Court cases from the past 12 years I discovered that industrial employers still refuse to pay even this minimum amount of compensation. Take for example the case of Md Rubel, a 15-year-old worker who was employed in the Three Star Fan Factory situated in Mirhajirbagh, Jatrabari, Dhaka. A 15-year-old child who should have been in school was instead compelled to work in a factory, making fans. On April 25, 2007, a sudden fire originated from an electric short circuit where the victim along with other workers got seriously injured. He was then taken to Dhaka Medical College Hospital but ultimately died on April 29, 2007. A news report regarding the accident was published in TheDaily Star on May 1, 2007. Through that news report, the incident came to the attention of Occupational Safety, Health and Environment Foundation (OSHE), which conducted an investigation and found grounds for seeking compensation. It then sent letters to the employer company twice, first on July 22, 2008 and then on August 27, 2008, reminding them of their legal obligation to pay Tk 1 lakh compensation (as it then was) to Rubel's mother. The employer refused to respond. After failing to get a response out of the employer, OSHE referred the case to BLAST and a case was filed against the employer seeking compensation in a Dhaka Labour Court (BLA Compensation Case No. 231/2008, Second Labour Court Dhaka). During the trial, the employer did not even bother to submit a written statement to contest the case, while Rubel's mother told the court that all the employer company had paid was Tk 10,000 as compensation to her. After two long years, the Second Labour Court Dhaka pronounced judgment on January 12, 2011 and ruled that the remaining compensation of Tk 90,000 ought to be paid to Rubel's mother within 30 days. A legal notice was forwarded to the employer company on January 25, 2011 for the payment of the compensation, however, the employer company, like all proceedings so far, simply ignored the notice. Thereafter, BLAST initiated a criminal case invoking criminal responsibility of the employer company for non-compliance with a court order under section 293 of BLA. In the meantime, with the passing of each day, Rubel's parents lost hope in ever being able to recover compensation from a court system which the employer can so easily flout. Nevertheless, the criminal case forced the employer to pay attention to the legal action, and they tactfully made an offer to Rubel's parents to settle out of court for Tk 60,000—they could accept this now or the company could continue prolonging the legal battle and keep them penniless. Rubel's parents perhaps realised it is better to receive this smaller sum of money with certainty, rather than continuing with a seemingly endless court battle with no certain outcome. Therefore, they accepted the offer, despite the reassurances and advice of their lawyer, and withdrew the legal action against the employer.
Rubel's case highlights the unjust reality of the justice system under our labour law. What was meant to be a milestone in upholding workers' rights has in practice amounted to an inefficient system that is subject to the whims of the industrial employer who can refuse to pay even the small sum of money the law obligates them to pay for a worker's death. The question is, why should our labour law attach so little value to a worker's life in the first place and why can industrial employers escape even this limited liability with such great ease?
Taqbir Huda is a Research Specialist at Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST) and coordinates Justice for All Now (JANO), Bangladesh.