Wages and safety: Two sides of the same coin
ON the upcoming second anniversary of the Tazreen Fashion fire that led to the death of 117 workers, there is now an increased awareness of workplace safety. At present, there are two international safety agreements, the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety and the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety, that are mandated to conduct inspections of factories around fire, electrical, and structural concerns.
The scope of these agreements along with Bangladesh's own National Action Plan, focus primarily on safety, especially given the fire in Tazreen and the structural problems that caused the Rana Plaza building to collapse. While it is pragmatic to have focused objectives in what is no doubt a massive undertaking to collectively inspect the close to 3,500 operational garment factories, there needs to be greater understanding on the nexus between wages and safety. If this is not part of the analysis, such safety inspection programs will not yield maximum results.
When workers earn paltry wages, and each taka makes a difference in their ability to sustain their families, unfortunately, they are more likely to take risks with their lives to earn the little money they are making. Many workers saw the crack in the Rana Plaza building, but they still went to work in part due to pressure from the owner and because they feared they might lose the additional bonuses, which help to increase basic wages.
In a recent interview of Accord factory workers, workers noted existing safety concerns regarding placement of wires, space between workstations, and irregularity of fire drills. When asked why they continue to work in these unsafe conditions, the common answer was – what choice do we have? Another response was more sobering - we can die at any moment, but while I live, I have to support my family. Workers responses have often been misunderstood as either religious fatalism or a lack of respect for their own life, when in fact, they are making decisions based on exploitative working conditions. As long as the wage-safety equation tilts towards a need for wages, safety decisions will not be paramount for workers.
Studies consistently have found that the best safety program empowers workers at the factory level. With this in mind, the Accord has partnered with unions to raise safety concerns. Nevertheless, such efforts are insufficient without raising wages for workers.
Increased wages incentivises workers to make a different decision around safety. When workers understand that safety leads to a tangible benefit in their day-to-day lives, then, they are more likely to value safety considerations. Sekender Ali Mina, Executive Director of Safety and Rights, said that “Safety issues will be raised by workers, when they feel secure in other aspects of their working lives such as wages.” Failure to provide economic security may make workers think that costs to safety will mean they will be deprived from wages, he added.
So, instead, we will get responses from workers, as I have, that they have to work, and resultantly may be reluctant to raise safety issues in fear that their factory will close, and they will lose their jobs. Workers need to be made partners in any safety program. Any effective worker safety program must take into consideration wages and other benefits of workers.
The failure to address wages is a critical gap in both the Accord and the Alliance. Both programs have an historic opportunity to educate their stakeholders on how increased wages can help with their safety initiatives, and move towards policies with owners to incorporate some changes. Re-evaluating wages does not mean that the Accord and the Alliance have to broaden their day-to-day focus, but they do need to use the safety discussion as a way to educate their stakeholders on why increased wages are important to their safety work. Without a robust, parallel discussion on wages, we may be telling the story of workers who feared raising safety issues because they desperately needed every taka of their paltry wages.
The writer is a Research fellow in the American Institute for Bangladesh Studies (AIBS).