Covid-19 in Bangladesh
Occupational health and safety culture
Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) culture is directly related to the well-being of people employed in different workplaces. Enjoying these standards at the highest level is a fundamental human right that should be accessible to every worker and employees. It is mandatory to ensure that despite the nature of their work, workers should be able to perform their duties in a risk-free, safe and secure work environment. These rights are defined in legislation so that employers are clear about the obligations and consequences for their negligence. But the real situation is different than what is written in the books. In both developed and developing countries, employers more willingly neglect their responsibilities when it comes to OHS regulation.
Historically, OHS culture was absent in Bangladesh. The Bangladesh government and other stakeholders were not much aware ofthe OHS culture so that many unintended brutal catastrophes took place in the informal economic sector of Bangladesh. Most industries such as garments, transportation, shipbuilding, construction, agriculture and even the household sector were not protected.
Due to the lack of proper data management system in the country, it is difficult to estimate the number of fatal injuries per day in Bangladesh. However, the most dangerous industries that take the precious lives of many workers are the garment, construction and transportation industries.
Why culture is important? Culture can and should be considered as one of the main pillars of community development and livelihood, and in its absence, no society can progress. It includes the totality of sharedvalues, identities, attitudes, preferences and knowledge which shape the behaviours of a particular social group and have an impact on social development in a specific country.
Cultural events are fun, entertaining and educational. Due to the proper cultural atmosphere, individuals can integrate physically and mentally. At many levels of society, it has been noticed that the dynamic cultural field needs a well-equipped organisation with arenas for critical debates and exchange of ideas. Identity expressed through culture is a necessity for all human development. It creates the basic building blocks that connect us to our personalities and our communities and nations.
It can be detrimental if a society does not have the right OHS culture. For example, the horrific collapse of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh on April 24, 2013, made headlines around the world and brought the country back into the spotlight in the Western media. An eight-storey building in Savar, approximately 24 km outside Dhaka, took more than 1135 RMG workers' lives and another 3500 were maimed permanently.Rana Plaza is not the first time that so many atrocities have taken place in the garment sector, where thousands of workers have faced the same consequences due to fires or leaving an inadequate building during the fire blaze or any other incidents. The whole process was unethical and contrary to national and international labour standards.
The Government of Bangladesh has ratified almost all the major fundamental conventions of the ILO, but not C155 and C187. These two are primarily focused on the laws and regulations relating to OHS. Many say that the national government objectionably ignores the essence of revising these two major OHS-related conventions for fear of losing market share for the Bangladeshi low-paid garment sector. On the other hand, the current analysis also suggests that the state has limited resources to ensure the health and well-being of workers.
The nature of work has changed dramatically both in the formal and informal sector. However, there is a lack of awareness about the harmful effects of prolonged exposure to computer screens and seating arrangement or the position of a computer monitor. There is no or little ergonomic seating arrangement even in the formal sectors which may have the resources to make arrangements for these. Still, there is no culture of doing so. Thus, there is limited awareness of and compliance to work and health safety standards in the formal sectors.
At present, the COVID-19 situation has added new dimensions to the nature of work, with many professionals working from home. When the coronavirus set in, there was a lack of personal protective equipment for doctors and nurses in Bangladesh. This exposed them to the virus, and many professionals have died subsequently. The management of coronavirus-related hospital waste has also emerged as an essential issue. It is necessary at this stage to dispose of medical and chemical waste safely to ensure the safety of health professionals, as well as the community at large.Among other professionals, a large number of journalists and law enforcement officers have also detected the coronavirus, and some have died from it. This reflects the inability in the work environment to ensure OHS and most importantly, OHS should have been taken more seriously in the past.
The COVID-19 disease has put some occupational groups at higher risk than others. Occupations that require close physical contact are at higher risks of infection. Among them, there are shopkeepers, doctors, nurses, care providers, journalists, delivery and transport workers, physiotherapists and many more. Dispute the call for working from home, in many cases; work cannot be adequately completed from home due to the Internet connectivity problems and lack of IT skills.
This global pandemic has revealed poor OHS practices in Bangladesh. For example, mixed messages were sent around during the initial phase of the COVID-19 period to workers. Garments workers were seen moving back and forth between their homes in villages and the capital city, Dhaka. This reflects the attitude of owners to OHS and how lightly the health and well-being of workers are taken.
Rostow's (1960) modernisation theory, despite its many weaknesses, helps to explain the lack of concerns for workplace health and safety in less developed countries (LDCs). Rostow was an American scholar and administrator well-known for his 'non-Communist Manifesto' in which he critiqued Marx and argued that societies pass through a series of stages to development. In other words, westernisation was the path to 'development' for LDCs. Furthermore, he argued that least developed countries make a low investment in safety and security before what he called 'take-off'. In the post-mature stage, which comes after economic 'take-off', societies adapt and innovate new technologies and allocate more resources for security and social welfare. For this reason, we do not see the kind of health and safety regulations and laws that we see in some Western countries. In, more imperfect LDCs people are desperate to make money to survive and even by compromising their health.
In order to ensure OHS at workplaces, staff training is required. Staff, employers and those who are involved in their business need to be aware of health and safety issues arising from their work activities. Each company and workplace need to have comprehensive work health and safety regulations and procedures in place. A national-level body may be set up to facilitate the process and to monitor OHS across sectors. Risk assessment, induction to new staff members about OHS and monitoring are required to ensure a safe and secure working environment.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created new challenges for ensuring,practising and enforcing OHS. The home has now become a part of the workplace for many professionals. For this reason, OHS practices need to be encouraged at home well. Strict compliance would jeopardise informal sector workers' livelihood. Still, some necessaryOHS measures can be implemented.Nevertheless, most importantly, Bangladesh needs to respect and embrace a healthy OHS culture in their daily lives.
Asm Anam Ullah is an Australian academic and researcher and Md Kamrul Hasan is a researcher, teacher and community service worker