• Monday, Sep 20, 2021
  • Last Update : 11:53 am

OP-ED: Work comes at a price

  • Published at 04:38 pm July 12th, 2021
narayanganj factory fire
After the fire MEHEDI HASAN

Workers in Bangladesh deserve a safe working environment

A blazing fire killed at least 52 people on July 8. The massive fire in a food processing factory building of Hashem Food Ltd, a concern of Sajeeb Group, was referred to as an accident. Moreover, the factory owner denied any responsibility for the workers’ deaths, stating that it was an “accident” and that an accident may happen anytime in a factory. 

However, it is not a one-of-a-kind incident; in Bangladesh, the track record of industrial working conditions is extremely poor. Similar “accidents” have occurred before, and many workers were killed in different factories. Recent infamous “accidents” were the collapse of Rana Plaza in 2013 and the fire in Tazreen Fashions in 2012. 

Immediately after the unpleasant course of events, the district administration of Narayanganj declared compensation packages: Tk30,000 for each dead and Tk10,000 for each injured worker. In addition, the district administration will also provide Tk25,000 to incur the cost of the burial of the deceased workers. The declared compensation package also includes financial assistance and medical aid from the Workers Welfare Foundation fund of the Ministry of Labour.

Tragic events in the country’s industrial sector are usually followed up with the declaration of compensation to the victims and survivors. Compensations for the affected workers consider that workers suffering an industrial tragedy need financial support to reorganize their lives and overcome the immediate shock. 

The need for financial support attests to the fact that workers have meagre income and savings, and when suddenly unemployed, injured, or dead, they require help even to meet their basic needs. Moreover, the workers who sustain long-term injuries or become disabled require lengthy treatments costing a lot of money. And families of the dead workers need financial support, having lost future possibilities of earnings. 

Recognizing these needs, besides government efforts, industries, private enterprises, and NGOs assume myriad initiatives to organize cash transfers and other supports such as treatment and rehabilitation. Of course, there is nothing wrong with providing financial help to those affected. But shockingly, we somehow stop only after giving some support, and we do not take enough initiatives against those responsible for the deaths of the workers. 

So, now it is high time to ask: Does the conventional approach of compensating the workers’ loss suffer from a narrow focus that hinders the possibility of a safer workplace in industries? Are those responsible for overseeing the safety and security of workplaces getting impunity? 

The overall responses to the calamities only seek to compensate the victims. This draws attention away from the negligence of the factory owners and relevant institutions in ensuring the safety protocols that would otherwise reduce the human cost during any industrial accidents. For example, videos of the recent factory fire show many workers jumped out of the windows in a desperate attempt to save their lives. 

Accidents indeed happen, but could the deaths and injuries of the workers be prevented? The testimonies of those who survived revealed, many workers could have been saved if the factory’s fire management features were better. Survivors and relatives alleged the only entry and exit point factory -- the front gate -- was locked. Besides, the factory building did not have proper fire safety measures that could save the workers. 

The surface area of the building was 35,000-square feet; ideally it should have four or five emergency exits, but there were only two which were unusable due to the raging fire. The situation that the survivors have described extraordinarily resembles the Tazreen Fashions factory fire of 2012. 

The nine-story building lacked proper fire exits. The ground floor of the building was used as storage. Hence the main exit point was blocked. There was also insufficient firefighting equipment. Despite knowing all this, somehow, we keep failing to make sure that workplaces are safe. 

The emphasis on compensation reduces the possibilities of a structural shift and complete justice. An exclusive focus on victims’ compensation means that factory owners or those responsible for overseeing the working conditions could remain indifferent towards the unsafe structural conditions of factory buildings. 

More importantly, it contributes to the commodification of workers’ lives and labour. The monetary compensations for irreplaceable losses swing our attention away from the possibility of a fairer future. 

Compensation hardly can ensure better fire safety in the factories. But only structural improvement will not save the workers. Unfortunately, the practice of keeping the factory gate under lock and key plays a critical role during these terrible events. Therefore, we will need a complete overhaul of how industrial factories are managed and regulated in and beyond export-oriented sectors. 

A compensation-based restoration model diverts attention from all the vital factors and exempts the owners from ensuring the safety of workplaces. Otherwise, their negligence could be treated as a criminal act. What remains absent is a more sustained call for accountability, holding all the responsible parties liable. 

There are many more factories with similar working conditions, but we choose not to intervene, not before some working-class people with financial hardships get killed or injured. Our inaction may lead to similar tragedies in the future.

This is appalling, how we have gotten used to seeing the numbers of deaths and sufferings. We move on without caring for the human lives underneath the numbers of death or injuries -- we have tagged a price for the working lives. 

Many more numbers and statistics come before us every day, and we take note of the numbers of “progress” -- increased GDP, per capita income, foreign reserve, export income, and so on. 

On the flip side, suffering working lives are being reduced to just numbers. When will we care?

Mohammad Tareq Hasan is an anthropologist and teaches at the University of Dhaka. Currently, he works as a research fellow at the International Institute of Asian Studies (IIAS), Leiden University, the Netherlands.

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