The bitter race between life and livelihood has never been so acute as it is today amid the coronavirus pandemic. The entire world, including Bangladesh, is faced with lockdowns on an unprecedented scale.
While Bangladesh is one of Asia's most remarkable success stories, having astounding GDP growth higher than that of its neighbouring countries, it is heavily dependent on export proceeds, with the ready-made garment (RMG) industry at the forefront.
The RMG sector alone contributes to above 12% of the country's GDP growth and constitutes about 80% of the total exports. Accordingly, the economic realities of Bangladesh, with its factories under complete shutdown, are not easily reconcilable with that of more robust and diversified economies.
Last year, the concern of cancellation of export orders of over US$ 3 billion loomed not only over factory owners but the country's economy as a whole. The need for factories and production units, particularly those of the RMG industry, to remain open and in full operation is key to avert economic collapse.
Whilst that is undeniably very important, risks mitigation and damage control, by ensuring the utmost protection of workers' health and safety, must be a top priority for the government as well as all the stakeholders.
The situation, therefore, demands all parties involved prepare for a rigid implementation of already existing labour law provisions and also put in place suitable rules and regulations to address Covid-19 health hazards.
Employers owe a duty of care to the workers. In the global context, the duty to provide a safe place of work and a safe system of work is a significant element of such legal obligations of the employers. The labour laws of Bangladesh in force were also enacted in alignment with such duties and obligations.
However, the existing legal framework needs to be reconciled, fine-tuned and interpreted in a manner that is suitable in the context of the global pandemic and risks it poses, should employees be brought back to workplaces before the Covid-19 pandemic withers away.
The Bangladesh Labour Act, 2006 stipulates dangerous operations which expose employees to serious risks of disease and also incorporates special provisions relating to health, hygiene and safety of workers in those establishments.
Accordingly, the government is empowered under the prevailing labour law to declare which operations are hazardous and make provisions to provide for regular medical examination of persons employed in such operations.
It is also empowered to provide for the protection of all persons engaged in such operation or in the vicinity of such places and to use any specified materials or processes in connection with the operation.
Such statutory provisions have never been so widely relevant as it is today in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic. Hence, the government should immediately promulgate specific labour law provisions concerning Covid-19 disease in the exercise of its statutory duty.
The Bangladesh Labour Rules, 2015 only stipulates certain activities as hazardous and lists specific diseases by default. Resuming and continuing factory operation during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic should be immediately declared as an activity that is hazardous, to bring it within the purview of dangerous operation under the labour law.
Highly contagious diseases, including Covid-19, should also be included immediately as a disease alongside the diseases already contained in the relevant schedule of the Bangladesh Labour Act. The employers should thereafter be required to comply with the provisions ensuring the protection of workers in their establishments accordingly.
Obligations of employers under the existing labour law framework should also be strictly complied with, and its implementation must be ensured. The Bangladesh Labour Act 2006 and Bangladesh Labour Rules, 2015 requires employers to provide personal safety equipment to workers and to ensure uses thereof.
Although the existing framework is primarily aimed at manufacturing processes that have high risks of physical injury or loss, the health risks posed by Covid-19 are equally severe in the present context.
Hence, the legal obligation of factory owners resuming operation should require them to provide the workers appropriate safety gears and kits such as reliable protective masks, goggles, protective aprons, hand gloves etc. that contain and mitigate Covid-19 risks.
Every worker is required to be made aware of the hazards involved in the current situation and be provided appropriate training to ensure the protection and safety of his or her health in the workplace. A safer system of work to minimise risks of contagion must be put in place, and its adherence by workers has to be strictly ensured by the employers.
This may include hand sanitisation at the entrance and at regular intervals thereafter, maintaining a safe distance and other suitable protocol as may be advised by health experts. Moreover, the floor layout shall be adjusted to render factory buildings safer and less prone to community transmission.
What may become a challenge is to ensure the proper implementation of regulations. Under existing labour laws, labour inspectors may visit establishments to ensure the implementation of safe practices. If it appears to a labour inspector that any establishment or any practice therein is dangerous to the life or safety of the workers, he or she may direct the employers to take appropriate steps to address the risks or even prohibit operation until the danger is removed or reasonably mitigated.
Lastly, the treatment of a worker contracting Covid-19 shall be arranged at the expense and responsibility of the employer until such a worker or employee is fully cured. Bangladesh's hardworking workforce are at the very core of the nation's growth and prosperity. Their lives cannot be put in jeopardy.
If factories are to remain open nonetheless, it is of paramount importance that safety regulations are promulgated, implemented and adhered to so as to safeguard the health and safety of the workers.
The writer is an Advocate of the Supreme Court of Bangladesh and Managing Partner of Accord Chambers. The write may be contacted at email@example.com