Tragic incidents endangering the health and safety of workers in the industrial sector have been common in Bangladesh. However, for one reason or the other, these incidents have not managed to find their way to the news headlines or reach out to the international community until recently, when the Rana Plaza collapsed. It is true that acts of God cannot be stopped but a tragic incident like that in Rana Plaza could have been avoided by taking the necessary precautionary measures.
In light of this recent tragic incident, it is essential for the employers to learn about their duties and obligations under the labour laws of Bangladesh and reformulate their policies to the extent necessary. The Labour Code (as amended from time to time) contains numerous provisions for the safety of workers in Bangladesh. By complying with the safety provisions set out in the Labour Code, employers can minimise, if not stop, the risks of tragic incidents like that in Rana Plaza.
Fire incidents in factories and work place pose a big risk to the lives of the workers. The Labour Code is a detailed statute and has extensive safety provisions relating to fire. For example, the Labour Code expressly states, amongst others, that there should be at least one alternative exit with staircases connecting all the floors of the factory building and that no doors allowing exit to employees can be locked during normal working hours. The employers should also install effective and clearly audible means of fire-warning system.
The Labour Code is extensive to the extent that it prescribes that the doors affording exit should open outwards and should be marked in red letters, in proper size and in the language understood by the majority of the workers. Proper training in respect of fire exit will need to be given to workers where there are more than ten workers employed in any floor, other than the ground floor. The Labour Code also prescribes that there shall be at least one fire drill a year in a factory where more than fifty workers are employed.
The unrestricted flow of workers in and out of their work place is also very important for their safety. The Labour Code contains detailed provisions relating to floors and staircases of a work place. It states that all floors, stair cases and passages should be wide, of sound construction and properly maintained with hand-railings on them (if it is required to ensure the safety of the workers). All the floors, passageways and staircases should be maintained in a clean manner free from any form of blockade.
The Labour Code also gives paramount importance to the safety of buildings and machineries. For example, if it appears to an Inspector (appointed under the Labour Code) that any building or part thereof or any passage way or machineries of a factory is detrimental to the life and health of the workers working therein, the Inspector may issue an order to the owner of the factory to take necessary steps within a specified time-frame. If the Inspector is of the opinion that the building or the machine poses an imminent threat to the life of the worker, he/she may issue an order to repair the same immediately.
The Labour Code also provides for the fencing of machineries. For example, a dangerous part of any machinery or a moving part of any machinery which may come into contact with a worker should be securely fenced in order to prevent any such contact. Where, in any establishment, it becomes necessary to examine any part of machinery while the machinery is in motion, such examination or operation should be carried out only by specially trained adult male workers wearing tight-fitted clothing. The trained worker's name should be recorded in a register prescribed for this purpose. There are also restrictions in the Labour Code prohibiting young workers to work on any dangerous machines, as prescribed by the Government in its Gazette, unless he has been sufficiently trained and fully instructed as to the dangers in connection with the said machine.
There are also special provisions relating to the health and safety of workers in the Labour Code. Under these provisions, the Government, if it is satisfied that any operations expose a worker to serious bodily injury or disease, it may make rules specifying, amongst others, the operation to be hazardous and prohibit the employment of women or children in that operation. The Inspector under the Labour Code will play a key role in making sure that these safety provisions are implemented by the employers. For example, the Inspector may enter into the premises of the employer and check whether the premises are being operated in accordance with the Labour Code. The Inspector may also serve an order specifying the measures which should be adopted or may permit the continued use of machineries on such conditions as are necessary for ensuring the safety of workers.
Also, there are strict reporting requirements on the employer to report certain incidents to the Inspector. For example, when any accident occurs in an establishment causing loss of life or bodily injury, the employer of the establishment shall give notice of the occurrence to the Inspector within two working days. Also, where in an establishment, any dangerous occurrence occurs whether causing any bodily injury or not, the employer of the establishment shall send a notice to the Inspector within three working days.
As can be seen from the above, there are many statutory provisions in place dealing with the safety of workers in Bangladesh. If followed strictly, the law is sufficiently detailed in order to prevent or minimise the risks of tragic incidents like that in Rana Paza. However, these laws are not always strictly implemented mainly due to lack of knowledge, costs consequences and/or lack of expertise. Recently, after the Rana Plaza incident, a binding agreement called The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh (the “Accord”) has been introduced in Bangladesh.
The Accord is a five-year legally binding agreement between international labor organizations, non-governmental organizations, and retailers engaged in the textile industry to maintain minimum safety standards in the Bangladesh textile industry. It is an agreement designed to make all garment factories in Bangladesh safer workplaces. The International Labour Organisation (ILO) acts as the independent chair. The Accord contains provisions relating to independent safety inspections at factories and public reporting of the results of these inspections. Where safety issues are identified, retailers commit to ensure that adequate repairs are carried out and that sufficient fund are made available to do so. It also ensures that workers at these factories continue to be paid a salary.
Recently, at a press conference, it was announced that the workers of garment units that need to shut down temporarily for renovation will receive payment to cover two months' salaries. The Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, a forum of 26 North American apparel retailers, will bear 50 percent of the cost while the factory owners will bear the rest. Finally it can be said that by virtue of the aforesaid measures, the safety of workers will be enhanced and taken due care of. With the Labour Code in place and its successful implementation, it is hoped that tragic incidents like Rana Plaza, where numerous innocent lives were lost, will not take place again in Bangladesh and tarnish its image.
The writers are barrister and advocate respectively from the law firm, Sattar &Co