Recently, a fire and a huge explosion have killed at least 49 people and at least 162 people at a storage depot near the city of Chittagong in Sitakundu, Bangladesh. Authorities said there were more than 4,000 containers at the depot, of which about 1,000 were filled with materials including chemicals. Officials said the number of casualties rose dramatically over the weekend because many workers and firefighters were unaware of the chemicals stored at the depot and went too close to the containers. A total of 21 firefighters were either killed or injured. Hospitals in the area are overwhelmed, with crowds of people waiting in hallways for treatment. Medics have appealed for blood donations and some of the injured have been airlifted to the capital, Dhaka.
Khairul Alam Sujan, Vice President of the Bangladesh Freight Forwarders Association, said Sunday that containers with hazardous chemicals are often kept near those with garment products ready for export. Even though industrial fires are common in Bangladesh, and are often blamed on poor safety regulations, the BM Container Depot has decided to pay 10 Lakh to each family of the dead. Therefore the total amount of ‘financial assistance’ they are planning to pay to the families of 50 deceased workers is 5 crore taka. One of the owners told reporters that his company is ‘ready to set an unprecedented instance of humanity’ for the ‘affected people’. Here the proposed payment is referred to as ‘financial assistance’ instead of ‘compensation’ in their press statement.
Compensations shall be paid by making a deposit to the Labour Court. Any compensation paid directly by an employer shall not be deemed to be a payment of compensation unless the concerned worker nominates any of his heirs to receive the compensation in the event of an injury resulting in his death and the compensation is paid to that nominated heir. No set-off, assignment, attachment, charge or transfer can be made on the compensation amount to any person except the worker other than by operation of law.
The question remains if BDT 2 Lakh can be the price of a hardworking worker’s life. When the price of a worker’s death is limited to two lakh taka in the very law that was meant to ‘ensure labour rights’, employers who store hazardous chemicals without proper licenses putting workers lives at acute risk can then advertise the payment of 10 lac taka as a grand act of magnanimity or ‘unprecedented instance of humanity’ - instead of having to fear unlimited liability from a class action lawsuit that would sue them for all they’re worth for committing gross corporate negligence that led to the preventable loss of life.
As long as there is no real price to pay for corporate negligence, companies will not have the incentive they need to stop acting so negligently and workers will continue dying preventable deaths.
The writer is a Fellow, DLA Piper and University of Oxford