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Occupation: hazardous. The plight of Bangladeshi construction workers

by Munima Sultana

Amin Miah had no idea what was waiting for him as he finished plastering the walls of an unfinished building in Dhaka.

(Rakib Ahmed)

He was about to finish for the day when a group of young men swept into the construction site where he worked, smashing everything that stood in their way.

They demanded to “speak” to senior management. Their reason? To extract extortion fees.

As the only member of staff around, Amin stepped forward to speak to the gang but before he could say anything they fired two warning shots. Amin blacked out.

When he came round he found himself in a hospital bed with a bullet in his right foot.

What happened to Amin isn’t so unusual. As a day labourer in a busy construction site in Dhaka, many Bangladeshi workers face similar dangers.

The growing practice of extortion, often by gangs of youths with political-sponsors, puts day labourers in the firing line of violence.

Engineers, office staff and members of senior management stay off-site where possible.

When attacked, construction workers receive little support from the authorities or the companies they work for, and justice is rarely served, even in cases where the victim ends up permanently disabled or dead.

Bangladeshi human rights organisations say that witnesses, victims and their families are reluctant to tell the authorities about these attacks because so little gets done.

And employers find legal loopholes so that they do not have to pay compensation to the victims or their families.

A 2006 labour law makes provisions for US$1200 compensation in the case of a workplace accident resulting in death or serious injury.

However, the structure of the construction industry means that workers never work for one company long enough (three years minimum) in order to qualify for compensation.

As a result, violent attacks not only cause mental and physical difficulties for the victims, but they also have serious financial implications.


Occupational accidents

Although construction workers often face violence, they are far more vulnerable to workplace accidents.

A study conducted by the Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies (BILS) based on newspaper reports found that a total of 487 construction workers died and 790 were injured at work in the six months to June 2012.

Of that number, some 97 workers were killed and a further 246 workers were injured in violent incidents.

The remaining 380 deaths and 544 injuries were the result of workplace accidents.

The causes of workplace accidents are numerous. Many workers are not given the appropriate safety equipment or training. They also work at great heights and in confined spaces, while also having to handle harmful chemicals and dangerous machinery without protection.

The BILS also found that construction workers also have to endure noisy work environments, dust, poor lighting, a lack of drinking water supplies and no proper toilet facilities.

These unhealthy environments put workers in danger of catching fevers, jaundice, malaria and skin diseases.

Like in many other countries, the construction sector is one of the driving forces for development in Bangladesh.

It contributes over nine per cent to the GDP and its 11 per cent growth rate is higher than that of Bangladesh’s three other major sectors – agriculture, industry and service.

According to the Real Estate Association of Bangladesh (REHAB), at least 9000 units are constructed every year, engaging some two million construction workers in 1200 member companies.

However, the total number of workers is actually much higher when one takes into account the construction of public housing, schools, hospitals, commercial buildings, factories, roads and bridges. The Bangladesh Nirman Sramik League (national trade union) says that approximately seven million workers are engaged in construction and carpentry.


Fighting for the rights of construction workers

Syed Sultan Uddin Ahmmed, Assistant Executive Director of BILS, said the nature of construction work has changed because of the use of middle men who hire workers on both a daily and contractual basis for real estate companies.

This, he said, allows companies to bypass their responsibilities for the health and safety of construction workers while reaping the financial benefit.

In Bangladesh, there are a handful of NGOs, civil society and human rights organisations campaigning to guarantee the rights of construction workers.

As well as BILS, the Bangladesh Environment Lawyers Association (BELA) and the Occupational Safety and Health Foundation (OSHE) also deserve credit for trying to bring about change.

Several years ago, construction workers weren’t organised. But today, the Imarat (Building) Nirman (Construction) Sramik (Workers) Association of Bangladesh looks after their interests.

An apex body, the Nirman Sramik Oikyo (Unity) Parisad formed by the BILS, has also created a five-point charter of demands, calling for demanding higher wages, access to healthcare, better work environments, reduced work hours, leave, legal rights and social security. But none of these demands have yet been met.

The Bangladesh National Wage Board also recently revised the minimum wage for construction workers.

However, even though the minimum wage for construction workers has been increased from 130 taka (US$1.65) to 425 taka (US$5.18) per day it is still much lower than what workers are demanding.

Nurul Haque, General Secretary of the Bangladesh Nirman Sramik League, said they have been negotiating the introduction of an occupational risk allowance.

But there are some who don’t think the situation is so desperate.

Tanveer Ahmed Probal, the former president of REHAB claims that construction workers get better wages than workers in other major sectors.

He argues that due to the high demand of labourers, it is difficult to keep construction workers on one project for a long time.

He also claims that workplace conditions for construction workers has improved, with many companies providing helmets, gloves, ropes and mosquito nets.

And with regards to workplace violence, REHAB admits that construction workers do suffer at the hands of hooligans but they deny that employers don’t go anything to help the workers.

The case of Amin Miah, however, suggests otherwise.

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