How much is a worker's life worth?
Asma Akhter, a 25-year-old Rana Plaza survivor, still struggles to drag her heavy prosthetic legs. Sometimes her husband carries her around, and, when he is not home, Asma has to crawl around the house. On April 24, 2013, Asma was working in one of the five garment factories housed in Rana Plaza. When the building suddenly collapsed, a heavy concrete beam fell on her legs and crushed them completely. She remained trapped for two days in a dark, dusty cove in the rubble without any food and water, suffering unbearable pain. All of Asma's dreams to live an independent, solvent life were buried under the eight story concrete rubble of Rana Plaza.
Asma was among the lucky 2000+ workers who were rescued alive from the ruins which claimed more than 1129 lives. Afterwards, she received financial and medical support from different national organisations and the Rana Plaza Arrangement, which was financed by contributions from buyers and other private donors. However, it would be misleading to conflate this voluntary, legally non-binding financial assistance with 'compensation' under the state's legal framework.
What Bangladesh's legal framework offers them is not only inadequate but also a blatant injustice. For a deceased worker, Bangladesh Labour (Amendment) Act, 2013 sanctions only Tk 100,000 and for a permanently disabled worker, the law approves Tk 125,000 regardless of the worker's basic wage. For a temporarily disabled worker, the law sanctions one-year compensation package in the form of full monthly salary for only the first two months, two-thirds of the salary for the next two months and half the salary for the rest of the months of the year. In case of prolonged occupational illness, the compensation package is half of the monthly salary for not more than two years. For injured workers, these provisions apply regardless of their basic wage.
According to this law, if a senior executive and a regular worker die in an industrial accident both of them will receive Tk 100,000 regardless of their economic condition and the number of family members dependent on them. The law also requires that the compensation is disbursed and distributed by the court – a cumbersome process that takes at least six months. Furthermore, this law is only applicable to formal sector labourers who constitute only 15 percent of the country's entire labour force, according to a study conducted by the researchers of RAND Corporation, Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS), BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD) and BRAC University, published in March 2017.
In fact, when asked about these loopholes in the Bangladesh Labour (Amendment) Act, 2013, Mikail Shipar, Secretary, Ministry of Labour and Employment, stated that the amount has been fixed in accordance with the capacity of all categories of businessmen. “We cannot fix a compensation amount that will discourage potential entrepreneurs and damage the industry. However, the affected workers and their family members can also appeal for compensation under other legal provisions such as The Fatal Accidents Act, 1855,” says Mikail.
However, law practitioners and experts reveal a different picture. According to AKM Nasim, Senior Legal Counsellor, Solidarity Centre, Bangladesh, “Cases under The Fatal Accidents Act, 1855 take a long time to be resolved and the court fee is also very high which is unaffordable for a Bangladeshi labourer. In fact, a case was filed demanding compensation by the wife of a road accident victim named Mozammel Hossain under this Act and it took 20 years to get the final verdict.”
Experts have suggested devising a national standard to determine the compensation. The standard will not command any fixed amount for compensation; rather it will delineate a set of criteria so that by considering these standard criteria, a proper compensation can be calculated for the victims. Advocate Md Borkat Ali, a lawyer of the Supreme Court and Deputy Director of Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust (BLAST), says, “The criteria should be based on what a deceased or permanently disabled or an injured worker and his/her family members lose due to the accident. For example, for a deceased labourer, the criteria to fix the compensation can be: the salary s/he would have got during the rest of his/her service life, the gratuity s/he would have got after retirement, the educational expenses of his/her children, living expenses of other dependent family members and also employment of his/her children as they would have enjoyed an advantage if their deceased parent was alive at that time.”
Borkar adds, “Whereas if a certain amount is fixed as the compensation, no matter how much it is at present, it can be inadequate after several years due to inflation or due to any other unpredictable economic condition.”
In this regard, a compensation committee appointed by the High Court to determine the compensation for the victims of Rana Plaza tragedy has set an excellent precedent. Professor Dr MM Akash, a member of the committee and a faculty of the Department of Economics, University of Dhaka, says, “The committee considered a wide range of issues while deciding the amount such as average age of the deceased workers, their probable salary during the lost service life, gratuity, festival bonuses, number of family members, their living expenses, education of the children, etc. Finally, we fixed the amount at Tk 1.5 million for the family members of the deceased and missing workers, and permanently disabled workers, and submitted the report to the High Court. The case is still pending in court and the recommended compensation has not been paid to the victims.”
Although the committee was formed on an ad hoc basis only to compensate the Rana Plaza victims, as the High Court treated the tragedy as a manmade crime and not just an industrial accident, experts think that the recommendations of the committee can be a guiding example for formulating the national compensation standard.
However, the harsh reality is that the Rana Plaza victims have still not received a single penny from the owners due to legal complexities. They have received only donations and financial help from various quarters but their right to compensation is being denied even after four years.
Limitations of the current law and procrastination to solve the pending Rana Plaza compensation case (which, if resolved, could complement the law) have threatened the workers' right to get compensated in case of accidents, whereas the rate of accidents is not at all decreasing in Bangladesh. A survey of Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies (BILS) shows that from 2008 to 2015, 5,339 labourers died in industrial accidents and 10,830 workers became permanently disabled. In 2016, at least 168 workers died and more than 200 were injured in different industrial accidents all over the country. If labourers employed in the informal sectors, such as day labourers, construction workers and domestic helps, were included in the survey, the number would increase manifold.
The government and businessmen should recognise the positive, proportional relationship between workers' rights and the scale of industrial production. If workers are ensured better salaries and adequate compensation, more skilled workers will enter the industry, industrial environment will improve and ultimately chances of accidents will go down. And to move forward, it is now necessary to change the law and to formulate the national standard of compensation that includes the labour force of both the formal and informal sector.
With the current weak compensation package mandated by the existing law, chances are little that a worker who becomes a victim of an industrial accident will ever get justice and compensation in Bangladesh.
The writer can be contacted at [email protected]