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May Day: No legal protection for the informal sector

  • Published at 10:25 pm April 30th, 2019
Workplace accidents and health hazards claim numerous lives each year
Workplace accidents and health hazards claim numerous lives each year Mahumud Hossain Opu/Dhaka Tribune

Experts fear more casualties ahead, if the ever-expanding sector is not immediately given legal underpinnings, to ensure legal protection for affected labourers and their families.

Lack of occupational safety and minimum legal protection for workers in the informal sector has led to a rise in workplace fatalities.

Experts fear more casualties ahead, if the ever-expanding sector is not immediately given legal underpinnings, to ensure legal protection for affected labourers and their families. 

According to the Bangladesh Occupational Safety, Health, and Environment Foundation (OSHE), at least 80% of the country’s workforce of 5.6 million people, work in the informal sector.

Workplace accidents and health hazards claim numerous lives in the sector each year. 

In 2017, the sector saw a four-year high death toll of 1,242 in both the formal and informal sectors, with 270 deaths in the formal sector, and the remaining 912 deaths in the informal sector.

Last year a total of 898 workers died, where 741 worked in the informal sector. 

OSHE Executive Director AR Chowdhury Repon said, despite such a shocking reality, most workers in  the informal sector have no legal protection as existing labour laws have little to show in their favour.

“Labour Act, 2006, which was amended again last year, still has a big loophole. It is yet to include any provisions for the entire informal sector,” he said, urging further amendment of the law, "to establish the rights of labourers."

The agriculture sector, which employs 47% of the country's labour force, is a part of the informal sector and workers in the sector lack legal protections. 

"The government is not bothered about any accidents at factories with five or less employees as the law has no provisions for such a small workforce," Repon added.

He felt that if the informal sector had the necessary legal protection, workers and their families would feel much safer.

"Legal protections can also intensify the government’s role in monitoring the sector," Repon hoped. 

Legal proceedings need to be transparent

Citing the ongoing trial process of cases filed in the Rana Plaza tragedy, Kohinur Mahmud, director of the Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies (BILS), said a history of no justice was causing repeated workplace casualties. 

“W do not know what happened to the offenders in the Rana Plaza disaster, which irks not only the country, but the entire world,” she said, adding that there were many such cases whose progress was not made known to the public. 

She also insisted employers arrange training for workers, especially at construction sites, ship-breaking yards, and industrial units with boilers. 

“Factory owners and authorities very often say workers do not use safety gear when working. However, in reality, workers are not provided with safety gear and not trained on how to use them,” she explained. 

The BILS director was also skeptical about the efficiency of the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments (DIFE) in monitoring workplace safety.

“Ever since the Rana Plaza disaster, the DIFE has increased its manpower and even trained them abroad. But did it work?” she questioned, demanding that labour law bring all labourers in the informal sector under its purview.

When contacted, Additional Labour Secretary Rezaul Haque said the law, adopted back in 2006, had been amended at least five times to accomodate aggrieved workers.

He also said that if needed, the amended law could be reviewed further.

“We have already formed the Bangladesh Labour Welfare Foundation to stand by workers, killed or injured at work. It was not intended for workers of any specific sector,” he said. 

When asked about the lax inspection of factories, the senior government official said the capacity of the DIFE has been "increased significantly in this regard over the last 10 years or so."

Casualties in the informal sector

Until March this year, at least 196 people were killed in both the formal and informal sectors, with 157 deaths in the informal sector alone. The transport sector topped the list with 74 fatalities, followed by 26 deaths in the construction sector. 

In 2018, the transport sector also repeated the feat with its death toll at 281, followed by 163 in the construction sector, 108 in agriculture, 28 in the apparel sector, 19 in the ship-breaking sector, 18 in the mining sector, eight deaths in rice mills, seven in steel and re-rolling mills, two in tanneries, and 206 dead in other sectors.  

For all of last year, 46 day labourers and 12 housemaids also died in their respective workplaces, according to OSHE data.

Some 313 workers were also injured in the transport sector, 262 in construction, 117 in agriculture, 57 in the apparel sector, and 48 day labourers were injured in 2018.