More than 160 million people live in densely-populated Bangladesh, where safety is a serious concern. People are dying in high-rise buildings, factories, restaurants, roads, rivers and even mosques, while doing everyday work. Nonetheless, Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) culture is not a high priority for the Bangladesh government or any political party.
My research on the historical background of OHS culture suggests that OHS culture has probably been absent in Bangladesh forever. It was not there during the colonial phase, not even during the rule of West Pakistan.
After independence, the Bangladesh government and other stakeholders were not aware of OHS culture, so much so that many unintentional atrocities took place in the informal economic sector of Bangladesh. Most industries such as clothing, transportation, shipbuilding, construction, agriculture and even the home sector were not protected.
Buildings often collapse in Bangladesh. Fires in factories are also a major issue. Scholars and critics of the Bangladesh government have always raised their voice and called on the government to change the OHS culture of the country by creating an adequate regulatory framework.
OHS, however, is a complex issue at both the formulation and implementation stage. Research has identified that new laws and regulations imposed by the government can put an extra burden on small and large businesses. This is because adherence to laws can be costly if there is a significant gap between the legal requirements and the actual management of an apparatus.
According to recent research and analysis, businesses can actually absorb the cost involved in implementing OHS. In most cases, it seems employers can find alternative solutions through negotiations with the state – that is not a significant problem. But it appears most employers willingly overlook the practice of implementing OHS in the workplace.
Many say it is because the government mostly fails at oversight of the informal sectors. Due to lack of proper enforcement of labour and industrial laws, many employers willingly commit a crime by violating relevant laws. The appropriate implementation of the laws is another big challenge for the government of Bangladesh.
Many global NGOs are moving forward to assist countries that genuinely need both financial and technical support in implementing OHS.
The International Network of Safety and Health Practitioner Organisations (INSHPO) and the American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) are two influential bodies that can help the country create better OHS regulation. By collaborating with them, our OHS knowledge and capabilities may improve.
Local enforcement agencies can learn about changes already adopted by developed countries, and they can follow the same guidelines to ensure better OHS for local workers and employees.
A political commitment to improving OHS is crucial to any nation. Without political will and strong determination, it is unlikely OHS will improve in countries like Bangladesh. Political intervention undermines regulatory action as a result of which OHS is not practiced in many developing countries.
In developing countries, independent regulatory bodies are often subservient to the government, and this is a widespread problem. Not all independent or private agencies are fully independent, for example, the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments (DIFE) is not independent of government control. On most occasions, inspection of the RMG factories or other informal factories and apparatuses by the DIFE are not carried out properly.
While legislation may, in theory, empower regulators, they are in reality often manipulated by the government. Recent research has pointed out that regulatory agencies are unable to finish their work due to pressure from politicians and RMG factory owners.
Nepotism and corruption are widespread in developing countries, and regulators ignore their moral responsibilities. There are questions about whether developing countries actually want to change the total OHS regulatory system.
The whole process of OHS control in developing countries is not transparent. A specific system of transparency should be in place that helps all stakeholders understand that OHS is necessary not only for workers but also for their families and national social, political and economic development.
Each responsible stakeholder requires to be more transparently involved in the regulatory process. An OHS control system and a strategy should be developed and eventually disclosed to the public. Reports on OHS regulation should be reviewed from time to time, which is absent in Bangladesh.
Institutional fragility is another factor in regulating OHS in developing countries. Many regulatory agencies are relatively new to developing countries, so those organisations lack enough OHS organisational knowledge and that creates problems in the actual regulatory field. Newly established organisations are also politically motivated, and they are more interested in the political party than the public. In this scenario, OHS regulatory institutions tend to be very fragile and face funding problems as well.
In Bangladesh, it appears many international organisations are currently involved in the supervision or updating the labour policy. In the absence of sufficient economic power in developing countries like Bangladesh, foreign financing agencies such as the World Bank, the IMF, or even the ILO, can help improve the situation. But, it should be kept in mind that the ultimate success of OHS control depends on political or governmental commitment, which is indeed missing in Bangladesh.
The author is an Australian academic