'More to be done for workplace safety'

Almost nine years have passed since the Rana Plaza accident. After that accident, the issue of workplace safety came to the forefront. In these years, initiatives have been taken on behalf of the government to ensure safe working environment at the workplace. However, that has not been adequate.

There is still a lot more to be done at a policy-making and field level to make the workplace safer. Safe working environment has to be ensured in all factories, not only in the readymade garments sector.

Discussants made these remarks at a roundtable titled ‘Nine years since Rana Plaza Accident: Safe workplace in garments sector, challenges and the way ahead’. ActionAid Bangladesh and Prothom Alo organised the discussion with support from AustralianAid at the Prothom Alo office in capital’s Karwan Bazar area on Monday.

At the discussion, Shamsun Nahar Bhuiyan, member of parliamentary standing committee on labour and employment ministry said, “We have advanced quite a lot in ensuring safety at workplace. Safe workplace saves lives as well as increases production. This country belongs to businesspersons and workers alike. So, workplace safety must be ensured.

Discussants at a roundtable on workplace safety in Prothom Alo office
Prothom Alo

Mostafizur Rahman, joint inspector general of DIFE said infrastructural, fire and power-related safety measures are required for factories and industrial buildings. Rana Plaza accident had shaken everyone intensely. The building in that accident had infrastructural faults. Many government agencies work to keep a workplace risk-free.

DIFE started paying attention especially to those three safety issues. There are 999 inspectors at DIFE now. This number has to be increased even further. DIFE has formed an Industrial Safety Unit (ISU). This ISU works to ensure safety in all industries, he added.

Shahidullah Azim, vice-president of Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) claimed that there have been extensive works to ensure safe workplace after the Rana Plaza accident. He said, following the Rana Plaza accident, the labour law has been amended and the national building code has been drawn up. However, it is matter of sorrow that these initiatives which should have been taken way earlier, were taken only after the death of 1,135 workers. This is how things are done in the industrial sector.

He added that a fund has been formed under the labour welfare foundation, where 12 million dollars are donated every year. Workers, injured in accidents are given aid from the fund. But there is more work left to be done. It cannot be said that the owner-worker relationship is hundred per cent healthy. This needs further improvement.

Hameeda Hossain, convener of Sramik Nirapotta Forum said it is essential to fix the issue of compensation for workers injured or killed in an accident at the workplace. It needs to be decided whether only garments workers will be getting the money or others workers will be included. The issue of trade union rights should be paid attention to as well. Workers have to be made more aware of their rights through trade union.

Farah Kabir, country director of ActionAid Bangladesh, moderated the session. She said special arrangements could be made to provide long-term aid to victims of workplace accidents. Planned action is needed to move forward with that. It is not a charity issue. Health and unemployment insurance schemes for the workers have to be realised.

It won’t do if these are implemented only at the garment factories. These initiatives have to be implemented in all the production based factories as well. For that, work including policy making and budget allotment have to be done in collaboration with the factory owners, she added.

Werner Lange, cluster coordinator of German aid agency GIZ Bangladesh said at the event, “There has been an unparalleled change in Bangladesh’s readymade garment sector regarding the safety issue, in last nine years. However, failing to launch an unemployment insurance scheme, thinking about the injured labours is really unfortunate. We have to think about what lesson we learned from the Rana Plaza accident. To what extent safe working environment has been ensured in the factories in actuality. These questions must be raised frequently.”

Saidul Islam, senior programme officer at International Labour Organization (ILO) Bangladesh, said Bangladesh does have achievement on the issue of workplace safety in the industries sector after the Rana Plaza accident. DIFE has formed ISU. The issue of launching employment injury insurance scheme was raised eight years ago.

He added, towards the end of last year it got into a shape through the announcement of implementing it in the readymade garment sector. The government has formed a framework as well. There have been notable work in ensuring labours’ safety at workplace but, still there is a lot left to be done on the policy making and field levels.

Khondaker Golam Moazzem, research director at Centre for Policy Dialogue said a framework is needed for helping the workers injured in a workplace accident. That framework shouldn’t just include the garment factories. Fire accidents are rising in the factories of other industries sector as well. Health and accident insurances can be made for workers at the workplace. Only providing money or financial aid won’t be enough. Long-term assistance on workers’ health is required too.

AKM Nasim, country programme director of Solidarity Center Bangladesh, said the number of trade union, formed to ensure workers’ rights is increasing in the country. But, there are doubts about the effectiveness of the trade unions. The issue of forming safety committee came to notice after the accident of Rana Plaza. It has to be monitored whether workers’ representation in those committees is working well or not. The way these committees should work, they are not functioning in that way.

Highlighting that there is no mention of rehabilitation for injured workers in the labour law, Razequzzaman Ratan, president of Samajtantrik Sramik Front said, there is only mentions of compensations in case of injury or death at workplace. Our per capita income is Tk 230 thousand, yet, when someone dies at workplace only Tk 200 thousand is provided to the family as recompense. The worth of a person’s life is less than our average income of a year. This requires redressal.

Morium Nesa, manager of women rights and gender equity at ActionAid Bangladesh, presented the keynote at the roundtable. Highlighting the results of a survey carried out by ActionAid on 200 people, she said only 14.5 per cent injured workers have returned to their previous jobs at the garments. Many of switched occupation and went to work as domestic help, day labourers, farmers or drivers.

She added, the survey showed the income of most of the injured workers has decreased sharply due to the effects of the pandemic. 63.5 respondents said they didn’t have adequate money to buy daily commodities during the pandemic. 51.5 per cent said they could not pay the house rent regularly and 22.5 per cent said they were unable to take proper care of their children.

Abdul Quayum, associate editor of Prothom Alo gave the welcome speech at the roundtable while Firoz Choudhury, assistant editor of Prothom Alo thanked the discussants.