Workers' Compensation Commission: A real challenge for Bangladeshi unions

Shajahan Khan


After almost three decades of independence, we have still not reformed our laws as circumstances demand. Everyday, a huge number of working people fall victim to accidents in workplaces particularly in factories, construction sites, agricultural farms, garment and leather production, transport, fishing, launches, and other industries. All these accidents cause injuries that can lead to permanent disability and sometimes death. Occupational safety and health invalids remain unemployed and the resulting lack of income as well as lack of access to medical services ruins their families. As a consequence, their dependants live from hand to mouth and children have to start working; some take to crime. Neither government nor the owners of industry accept their responsibilities to help or rehabilitate these unlucky families.

Statistically, we see that in terms of global poverty, our position ranks second lowest. In 1991, we found that 28 percent of our population was living below the poverty line; in 1995-96, it was 25 percent; at present, 43 percent of our population is living below the poverty line. Poverty can be seen everywhere. According to official sources, each of the 132 million people in Bangladesh on average survives on an annual per capita income of only US$386. Bangladesh’s position ranks number 146 in the United Nations Development Programme. In particular, the status of our women is really bad.

According to experts there are five main causes for our poverty:
• Natural disaster;
• Diseases and lack of resources in the health sector;
• Lack of social security;
• Lack of employment security; and
• Unnatural death of key family earners
My topic addresses the last of these causes, unnatural death (accident) of key bread earners. Every year, thousands of worker die in workplace accidents. Unfortunately our government neglects to protect these victims and their families.

Our existing worker’s compensation laws are rigid and out of date. The Fatal Accident Act, 1885 provides for compensation to families for death of family members caused by lack of safety in the workplace. The Workmen’s Compensation Act, 1923 states briefly how and to what level workers can apply for benefits. According to this law, an injured worker or, in case of death, his/her family is entitled to compensation as follows:



At present, the national minimum wage is above $10 (around Tk 500). According to the Workmen’s Compensation Act 1923 the surviving family of any victim of a fatal workplace accident will receive $362 (Tk 21,000) only and in case of total permanent disablement the worker is entitled to $517 (around Tk 30,000) only. It is unbelievable that our life is worth only $362, and that the value of our ability to function normally is just $517.

The same law states that, in case of temporary disablement, compensation shall be paid for the period of disablement or for one year, whichever period is shorter. In the first two months, 100 percent of the wage shall be compensated, while in the subsequent months, two thirds of monthly wages shall be paid. The amount of compensation varies between public sector workers, who receive the legal sums, and the private sector where it is much more difficult to receive the standard. Victims of accidents, which occur mostly in the private sectors of agriculture, leather and garments factories, and construction, cannot take advantage of the existing laws; in these cases the Department of Labour’s performance is almost invisible.

It should be noted that we have a labour recruitment policy that in most cases leaves the workers without any specific benefits. The policy contains the provision that workers are entitled to appointment letters, but whether the workers are given these letters depends on the sweet will of the employer. Although it is a basic right, due to lack of supervision by the concerned government department, the employers intentionally and regularly violate this right. As a result a labourer may be retrenched by the employer at any time.

In addition, workers in high occupational risk sectors are not awarded any extra remuneration. Because of widespread occupational hazards, most workers suffer from chronic ill health. Section 3(2) of the Workmen’s Compensation Act, clearly states how a work related disease will be considered and what will be the role and responsibilities of the employer or owner of the workplace. But the situation is complicated because diseases are not legally defined.

In fact working conditions and health hazards as a whole have changed over time. Unfortunately we are following an old-fashioned law that does not suit the present workers’ situation at all, yet the authorities seem not to be even remotely concerned about such crucial issues. It is regrettable that the ‘National Health Policy 2000’ did not emphasise labour health issues as it needed to. Every year, hundreds of accidents cause thousands of deaths and disablement; it is high time that the seriousness of this situation is acknowledged; government should protect labourers’ interests and work to save their lives and families as well as well as setting up a Workers’ Compensation Commission to resolve all kinds of disputes.

National newspapers report how bad the situation really is:
• In 1991, 144 workers died and 620 were injured in accidents at workplaces.
• In 2001, 196 workers died and 508 were injured.
• In 2002, 168 workers died and 389 were injured.
• About 12,000 people died in road accidents every year. Nearly 65 percent of them are working class passers-by.
• About 1,620 people were murdered from January to June in 2003. Most of them were workers.
• About 4,000 people died in 496 launch accidents in the last 30 years. Most of them were workers with dependent family members.
• About 0.5 million (5 Lakh) working class people died in floods, cyclones, and fishing-boats in the last 10 years. Most of them were workers with dependent relatives.


Compensation cases: slow, unfair, and usually unpaid
A 19-year-old worker, Kamal, was electrocuted at Peoples Garments while ironing clothes made for one of the world's biggest retailers. He died instantly in Mirpur over ten years ago. On union advice his mother submitted a petition to the Dhaka Divisional Deputy Inspector of Factories for a legal suit against Peoples Garments, which, giving subcontracted work as a reason, flatly refused to compensate.

The Inspectorate filed a case in the Labour Court following an investigation. But Kamal’s mother has still received no compensation because of the legal tangle.

Munna Khan, a worker at Maran Chand, died aged 54. He had been working for the sweetmeat outlet for over 35 years. Among his dependants is his handicapped daughter. Munna’s relatives applied to Maran Chand for compensation, but received nothing.

Idris Ali, a casual worker, earned between Tk 2,500 (US$42; US1 = Tk 59) and Tk 3,000 a month at a re-rolling steel mill in Narayanganj. A terrible incident at work crushed both of his legs, leaving him unable to provide for his family of five, and he has languished at home in Netrokona district since 2003. The owners gave him Tk 3,000 and sent him home, but denied him his legal entitlement according to compensation law. His wife Shahara Khatun works as a domestic worker in the Mirpur area.

Like Kamal, Munna, and Idris, millions of blue-collar workers of the country have no effective social safety net. They get virtually no compensation from the employers for doing precarious jobs or for accidents. If paid, relatives of a dead OSH victim receive only a meagre amount of compensation but even this is usually not paid.

What is more appalling is that the ‘value of life’ of a worker is a paltry US$362 or Tk 21,000 which he is entitled to by the country’s age-old labour law. Family members of an accidental death victim cannot claim more than this amount within the ambit of the law enacted during the British period.

From ‘The Independent’ (Bangladesh) on-line newspaper, 17 April 2004
Sent to ALU by Badruddoza Nizam, General Secretary of Garments Tailors Workers League -GTWL, Bangladesh, Affiliated with ITGLWF/TWARO and Member of the TU-OHSE Working Party on Health, Safety and Environment



Expectations from the proposed Commission
We are asking the Government to establish a Workers’ Compensation Commission. We believe that such a Commission formed by the government can work to change or modify our existing laws. It could help by taking the initiative for the well-being of working people.

A Workers’ Compensation Commission is our union’s most urgent demand from a humanitarian point of view. We expect the sincerity and goodwill of the government to protect the interest of workers. In order to establish the Commission, the government can raise the necessary funds in various ways, such as:
• Through insurance policies;
• From the owners of the companies;
• Defining a specific amount of export and import earnings to be contributed to the Workers’ Compensation Fund.
The main objectives of the Commission are:
• To establish the legal rights of workers’ protection concerning occupational health and security;
• Proper implementation of labour laws in the industrial sector;
• To improve the level of occupational health and security and the health of labourers;
• To implement supervision of operational rules such as working conditions, wages, duty hours, insurance, leave, and appointment letters;
• To determine the nature and range of occupational accidents and diseases;
• To establish a system for paying compensation to workers immediately for any kind of workplace accidents, as well as the initiatives necessary to rehabilitate the victims’ families;
• To put regulations in place for paying compensation and other relevant procedures as at present there is no homogenous law for workers’ compensation;
• To organise effective training and advocacy programmes for workers about occupational risks and hazards;
• To ensure that all workers and employers are brought under a single compensation scheme.

Union recommendations
• In case of any appointment, both permanent and temporary, the basic criteria should mandate membership of the Workers’ Compensation Commission;
• From the security point of view, night work should be stopped. Dangerous jobs especially should be strictly prohibited at night. Working times must be determined according to International Labour Organisation (ILO) conventions, the only universally accepted international laws and standards protecting workers;
• To introduce a special code of conduct regarding workers’ security, welfare, and remuneration as well as pension and gratuity during retirement;
• Each workplace’s fire control centre, health complex, and workers’ welfare centre should be managed by the Workers’ Compensation Commission;
• The Workers’ Compensation Commission should be on the basis of ILO conventions. Workers, government, and factory owners must work together regarding the working environment. The Workers’ Compensation Commission will work as an umbrella for planning and implementation of the labour code of conduct;
• All forms of child labour should be strictly prohibited and stopped through the proposed commission;
• The Workers’ Compensation Commission will arrange special training for owners as well as workers. It will introduce appropriate labour laws and health and security training as set out in ILO standards;
• The Workers’ Compensation Commission will be the sole responsible authority to ensure the rights and welfare of the workers. All administrative districts will be covered by the Commission;
• The Workers’ Compensation Commission will play the key role in negotiating all kinds of labour disputes between government, owners, and workers;
• If necessary the Commission will arrange bi-lateral and tripartite meetings of the government, owners, and trade unions, to solve disputes regarding occupational health and security;
• The Workers’ Compensation Commission will introduce mandatory insurance for workers and their families;
• To establish immediate workers’ compensation, the Commission will start a campaign and build up a solidarity network with all affected sectors of society, such as civil society, news media, social institutions, and trade unions to push the government to set up this Commission.

We believe that all these recommendations are possible if there is a free and independent Workers’ Compensation Commission.
Our demands provide for all workers and employers under the proposed Commission, including:
• All types of women workers;
• Young workers;
• Temporary/seasonal labourers;
• Labourers working in the informal sector;
• Migrant labourers (domestic or abroad);
• Unemployed labourers;
• Sick labourers; and
• Elderly labourers

We call upon all to urge early implementation of safety and security measures overseen by the Workers’ Compensation Commission for victims and their families. We request the media’s co-operation. We believe that the Government, Members of Parliament, political parties, trade unions, Sramik Kormochari Oikkyo Parishad (SKOP), and the Bangladesh Nation Council (BNC) of Textile, Garments, and Leather Workers, owners’ associations, businessmen, and professional groups will play a significant role in establishing the Commission. We especially expect genuine guidelines and technical assistance to establish the Commission from the International Association of Industrial Accident Boards and Commission (IAIABC). Finally, we request all Trade Unions to address the Commission issue in their respective demands.

We are looking forward.

This article is a combination of two verbal presentations: to trade unionists, and then at a press release.


Compensation cases: slow, unfair, and usually unpaid
A 19-year-old worker, Kamal, was electrocuted at Peoples Garments while ironing clothes made for one of the world's biggest retailers. He died instantly in Mirpur over ten years ago. On union advice his mother submitted a petition to the Dhaka Divisional Deputy Inspector of Factories for a legal suit against Peoples Garments, which, giving subcontracted work as a reason, flatly refused to compensate.
The Inspectorate filed a case in the Labour Court following an investigation. But Kamal’s mother has still received no compensation because of the legal tangle.
Munna Khan, a worker at Maran Chand, died aged 54. He had been working for the sweetmeat outlet for over 35 years. Among his dependants is his handicapped daughter. Munna’s relatives applied to Maran Chand for compensation, but received nothing.
Idris Ali, a casual worker, earned between Tk 2,500 (US$42; US1 = Tk 59) and Tk 3,000 a month at a re-rolling steel mill in Narayanganj. A terrible incident at work crushed both of his legs, leaving him unable to provide for his family of five, and he has languished at home in Netrokona district since 2003. The owners gave him Tk 3,000 and sent him home, but denied him his legal entitlement according to compensation law. His wife Shahara Khatun works as a domestic worker in the Mirpur area.
Like Kamal, Munna, and Idris, millions of blue-collar workers of the country have no effective social safety net. They get virtually no compensation from the employers for doing precarious jobs or for accidents. If paid, relatives of a dead OSH victim receive only a meagre amount of compensation but even this is usually not paid.
What is more appalling is that the ‘value of life’ of a worker is a paltry US$362 or Tk 21,000 which he is entitled to by the country’s age-old labour law. Family members of an accidental death victim cannot claim more than this amount within the ambit of the law enacted during the British period.
From ‘The Independent’ (Bangladesh) on-line newspaper, 17 April 2004
Sent to ALU by Badruddoza Nizam, General Secretary of Garments Tailors Workers League -GTWL, Bangladesh, Affiliated with ITGLWF/TWARO and Member of the TU-OHSE Working Party on Health, Safety and Environment