Workers in factory incidents beyond the international spotlight need financial security

Only six month after the Rana Plaza collapse, seven workers died in a textile mill fire producing for international garment brands. Almost five years on, the families of these workers are still waiting for full and fair compensation. Contrary to the Rana Plaza collapse or the Tazreen fire, this factory incident did not have the spectacular scale that made it newsworthy for an international public willing to put pressure on brands. For the families involved, these deaths were however no less of a tragedy. Their right to full and fair compensation should not depend on the size of the factory incident, or the image of the buying brands – it should be covered under a national employment injury insurance system. Yesterday, at the fourth annual review of the Sustainability Compact, this was one of the topics on the agenda, which will hopefully lead to much needed progress. 

The Rana Plaza collapse put the spotlight on worker safety on the Bangladeshi garment industry. It showed that Bangladesh had notoriously dangerous factories, and that workers and their families are not ensured a decent living after injury or death of a family member in the workplace. The issue of factory safety was quickly and structurally addressed through the establishment of the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, but the second issue was addressed in a more ad hoc manner. First priority was to establish a mechanism for calculating, funding and distributing loss of income payments and medical treatment to the injured workers and the families of the killed workers of the Rana Plaza collapse. 

For workers injured or killed in smaller factory incidents replicating the Rana Plaza arrangement however is no option. It took massive international attention, the establishment of a complex but temporary programme, and a two year campaign to get the money and make sure that families received the bare minimum they were entitled to. This caused unnecessary and painful delays. At a time of great distress and trauma, families should have certainty over what is going to happen, and their pain should not be drawn out through years of having to fight for the compensation they are entitled to. Nor is it sustainable or possible to set up a new scheme from scratch every time a worker is killed or injured. The establishment of an employment injury insurance scheme in Bangladesh is the only way to ensure that workers injured at the job or the families of workers killed at work receive the compensation they are entitled to.

The right to loss of income payments and medical care following a workplace injury has long been internationally recognized. ILO Convention 121 stipulates the standards for employment injury insurance, which should be delivered by the state and provide a lifetime pension to a worker or his or her family. Bangladesh has still not ratified the convention, but in 2015 the government of Bangladesh has committed to establishing a national employment injury insurance scheme according to its standards. Such a system is affordable and enhances the reputation of Bangladesh. There is however still significant work to do if Bangladesh is to develop the necessary institutional and legal mechanisms by 2020 as promised. It is imperative that legislation to put such a system in place is tabled as soon as possible and that the implementation of a system is started before the next (fifth) compact review next year. 

Around 500 workers were injured and several dozens killed in the Bangladeshi garment supply chain since Rana Plaza. A "bridging solution" could establish a procedure for accepting and processing existing and future workplace injury claims in line with international standards, and delivering loss of income payments. This could be a practical stepping stone towards the implementation of a permanent employment injury insurance scheme.

Such a bridging solution would allow families to move on with their lives - focusing on overcoming their grief instead of scrambling for a living. First priority remains to prevent factory incidents from happening, but for those accidents that cannot be prevented the least that workers should be offered is financial security. The government of Bangladesh should move this forward by creating a proposal with a concrete time-path before Eid. 


Authored by Ineke Zeldenrust & Christie Miedema, Clean Clothes Campaign