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     Volume 7 Issue 18 | May 3, 2008 |

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May Day Special

Unsafe at Work

Elita Karim

Photo: Amran Hossain

Sweltering in the summer heat, Mohammad Tarek, along with his fellow workers, walks on the edge of a narrow brick wall, holding on to bamboo sticks tied together for support. As he moves slowly yet smoothly, like an acrobat balancing on a hanging pole, Tarek manages to tie more bamboo sticks together, nailing them to the side of the brick wall. "This is done for the workers to hold on to while working at a height," says Tarek. Despite Tarek's simple explanation of this extraordinary balancing act, the fact that he and his fellow workers do it on the third floor of a building under construction, with no safety nets below, is terrifying.

Construction workers injuring themselves because of lack of safety measures taken by the authority is a common story. Many experts allege that the floor of the Rangs Bhaban had collapsed because safe and scientific methods of demolishing a high-rise building were ignored. They say that neither surveys were carried out, nor were any safety precautions taken before demolishing the 22-storey building. As a result, several labourers were killed and many injured when the floors collapsed.

Hailing from Pabna, 23-year-old Tarek had left for Dhaka eight months ago to make a living. Since then, he has been working in several building construction sites in Dhaka. "Till now, I have not had any major injury while working," he says. "However, a couple of my fellow workers were hurt badly in front of me. One of them fell down from the second floor of a building when the bamboo support came off. He was rushed to the hospital and had broken his rib bones. There was another time when a large bar of iron pierced through a worker's leg. He lost a lot of blood."

Photo: Zahedul I. Khan

The plight of workers and labourers do not end with construction sites. Hundreds of them are being injured or killed inside factories and industries merely because most factory owners in the country care little for their workers' lives. In many places, these workers are seen taking care of themselves with the resources around them. While some men and women wrap up old tubes, cloth and thick polythene sheets around their legs to protect themselves from the possibility of losing limbs inside the factories, some just say a small prayer and hope that the melting metal does not fall on their feet.

The most talked about story is the one about the half a million people living in and around Hazaribag, suffering and living a hazardous life because of the Hazaribag tanneries. According to a survey done by the Society for Environment and Human Development (SEHD) back in 2005, at least 90 percent of the Hazaribag tannery workers die before they reach the age of 50 due to unhygienic working-environment. About 58.10 percent of workers suffer from ulcer, 31.28 percent have skin diseases, 16.76 percent suffer from malnutrition, 11.73 percent have high blood pressure and 10.61 percent suffer from rheumatic fever. The tannery workers suffer from dizziness, headache, weakness and eye problems. They also suffer from abdominal pain, nausea, diarrhoea, allergy, burning sensation in the chest, throat, palm and toes, urinary problems and pain in the body, waist, legs, back, throat, neck, shoulder and ankles. Most of these tannery workers are not aware of the precautionary and safety measures at work. The SEHD report also says that only 30 percent of the workers wore shoes inside the work-place, only 3 percent wore aprons, only 3 percent wore masks and only 12 percent wore gloves.

Photo: Zahedul I. Khan

The Labour Code 2006 ensures the safety of a worker on several levels. For instance, in case of a fire breaking out, an alternative staircase has to be connected to every floor as a means of escape. The exit doors are to stay unlocked at all times while the workers are inside the building. Where more than 10 workers are employed above the ground floor, or where explosives or inflammable materials are used, all workers should be provided training or means of escape if there is a fire. In relation to work in confined spaces no worker shall enter any chamber, tank vat, pit or other confined space where dangerous fumes are likely to be present. Spare breathing apparatus, reviving apparatus, belts and rope are to be kept beside the confined space ready for instant use. The workers would also have to be trained to use such apparatus. No worker will be allowed to enter any boiler, furnace etc or other confined spaces until it has been sufficiently cooled. For workers who are involved in construction work and other occupations, which might be hazardous to the lives of the workers, proper gear should be provided. Suitable devices are to be provided in every workroom for cutting off power in emergencies from running machinery. Workers will not be allowed to carry, move or load weights that are likely to cause him or her injury. All floors, stairs and gangways should be wide and obstacle free and of sound construction. Also, the workers are to be provided with substantial handrails wherever necessary.

In spite of the government stressing on the safety and precautionary measures through the Labour Code of 2006, the numbers of accidents in the work place seemed to have escalated in the last year. Their employers and factory owners hardly ever spare these workers a thought. According to the Bangladesh Occupational Safety, Health and Environment Foundation, at least 40 blasts took place last year, at rice mills alone. At least 1,768 workers were killed and over 2,000 were injured last year in accidents inside their workplaces. Last year, the highest number of casualties was found in the construction sector, according to the yearly survey report of the Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies. In this sector at least 105 workers were killed in accidents. A large number of deaths also occurred in the RMG sector, where 39 workers were killed, 618 injured and 19 female workers were sexually violated.

According to Mujahidul Islam Selim, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Bangladesh, the plight of the workers and labourers has worsened after passing the labour law in 2006. "The rights of the workers are still being violated everyday," he says. "Trade unions all over the country are getting the major brunt. Negotiations do not take place anymore. In fact any trade union leader can be sacked without any further notice on allegations made."

Photo: Zahedul I. Khan

Even today, a majority of the workers working in factories do not get their basic necessities fulfilled. "Besides the major levels of injury that the workers go through, there still lies the issue of the basic salary given to the workers on time, bonuses, holidays, maternity leaves for women and so on," says Selim. According to Selim, the labour codes passed in 2006 is one of the major reasons as to why the workers and labourers tend to take to the streets at times. "They will opt for violence if they are not given a chance to express themselves, hold meetings and get into negotiations."

There is always a yearning to gain social and economic success in the nation. However, one of the major reasons as to why we cannot achieve this success is because the employers tend to exploit the workers instead of making proper use of their skills. Not only has this destroyed the art of entrepreneurship, but has also snatched away a worker's basic freedom of thought, conscience and speech.

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