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National action plan needs to be formulated by reviewing OHS policy

Representatives of the government, trade unions and civil society organisation called to formulate National action plan after reviewing the Occupational Health and Safety policy to protect workers, frontline fighters and service providers during COVID-19 pandemic situation. Speakers expressed their opinion on a webinar titled “COVID-19: Occupational Health and Safety for all (Workers, Front liners and Service providers)”. Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies-BILS Organised the webinar on August 12, 2020.

The webinar was organised to review the effects and vulnerabilities of working people, front liners and service providers in the fight against COVID and deficit analysis of policies formulated on related issues. Considering the current situation, the meeting was organised to take the views and recommendations of the participants to ensure the necessary Occupational Health and Safety and to decide what to do in this regard.

BILS Chairman Md. Habibur Rahman Shiraz chaired the webinar, while Secretary General and Executive Director Nazrul Islam Khan acted as a moderator. Faculty Member of Department of Occupational Health and Environment at Bangladesh University of Health and Science AKM Masum Ul Alam presented the keynote paper. Former President of Bangladesh Medical Association (BMA) Rashid-E-Mahbub spoke as a key note speaker. Sramik Nirapotta Forum-SNF Convenor Dr. Hameeda Hossain, Joint Inspector General (Health Wing) of the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishment Dr. Md. Mostafizur Rahman, BILS Vice Chairman and Bangladesh Jatiyatabadi Sramik Dal President Anwar Hossain, BILS Joint Secretary General and Bangladesh Trade Union Center General Secretary Dr. Wajedul Islam Khan, Associate Professor of the Department of Public Health at Daffodil University and former Senior National Consultant at the World Health Organization (WHO) Dr. Salamat Khandaker, Workers Specialist of Decent Work Technical Team at ILO South Asia Syed Sultan Uddin Ahmmed, ILO RMG Project Chief Technical Advisor George Faller, IndustriAll Bangladesh Council-IBC General Secretary China Rahman also spoke as distinguished discussants.

In the key not paper Masum Ul Alam said, working people have suffered the most due to COVID-19. People’s awareness has been disrupted due to the dilemma between lockdown and public holidays. Lack of coordination has led to misinformation and in some cases, rumors circulating through social media, which has led to harassment of people he added. Corruption in health care materials has exacerbated the problem. He also said, due to lack of public awareness and coordination, the expected results were not obtained from the area-based lockdown. He noted the need to address COVID-19 by ensuring a secure workplace through responsible business initiatives. In this regard, he highlighted the importance of implementing the Occupational Health Safety guidelines of existing labour laws and policies and social dialogue. He said the government and development organisations should raise the issue of protection of workers in the new normal situation.

Speaking as a key note speaker Rashid-E-Mahboob said, COVID-19 is not a professional disease, it is a contagious disease. Hygiene should be applied keeping this in mind. In the workplace, it’s up to the employer to make sure. Noting that at-risk workers need to be given proper protection, he said there needs to be specific guidelines among workers on how to follow health rules properly. In this case, the government may follow the ILO guidelines on the workplace. He added that all parties need to consider whether insurance can be guaranteed to workers in the same way that government officials and employees are covered.

Mentioning that the trade union must come forward to make the workers more aware to deal with COVID-19, Dr. Hameeda Hossain said, there is not only one class of workers, but also different types of workers, both formal and informal. Emphasizing the need for trade unions and employers to work together on the risks of workers during COVID-19, she said employers must ensure food and transportation for workers. In this case, the trade union should raise the issues and discuss with the owners. She also emphasized the need for urgent training and awareness initiatives.

Giving importance on the need for trade unions to come forward with a proper and effective role for the protection of workers during the COVID-19 situation, Dr. Salamat Khandaker said, the three things to consider in this case are the source of the disease, how it spreads and how to stay safe. He said proper guidance should be given to deal with COVID-19 from the policy-making stage. He also said COVID-19 is not only a public health problem, but also a public health policy issue.

Referring to the fundamental rights of workers in a safe and healthy workplace George Faller said occupational safety in the workplace is a part of the ILO’s recommended Decent Work. This should be taken into maximum consideration, especially to ensure the return of workers to the workplace. In this case, the factory and establishment inspection department has to prepare a guideline for different workplaces, he added. Owners and trade unions have an important role to play in its implementation, he said. Mentioning the need to provide accurate information in this case, he said that in all cases, the rules of cleanliness, including ensuring physical distance and wearing a mask, must be strictly followed. He also mentioned that there is a need for proper training of the workers in this regard.

China Rahman said, working people have most suffered due to COVID-19. She said that the main responsibility of the employer is to reduce the risk of workers at workplace. Despite the trade union’s demands for protection in this regard, the owners are keeping their profit in the highest consideration. She added that the medical system in the workplace is inadequate. In addition, workers jobs are being cut indiscriminately. As a result, various social problems are increasing including domestic violence and helplessness of pregnant women workers. She said the situation would have been alleviated if the health care initiatives taken after the Rana Plaza accident had been followed.

Dr. Md. Mostafizur Rahman said, the condition of COVID-19 is not only a health problem but also a physical, mental and financial crisis. Now we have to deal with the post COVID-19 situation, he mentioned. He said, it is necessary to know the views of all parties to make an action plan in this regard.

Syed Sultan Uddin Ahmmed said the deaths of health workers were limited to numbers and news. It is unknown at this time what he will do after leaving the post. Noting that many Bangladeshi workers have been forced into forced labour in the COVID-19 situation, he said it was a clear violation of the Constitution of Bangladesh and the principles of the ILO. He added that there was a need to issue an ordinance on incentives announced by the government so that everyone could follow it properly. He said, there was still a need to enact emergency laws in this regard. He added, there was a need to enforce parts of the labour law on quarantine due to infectious diseases. He commented that the next situation could be direr if the workers were not considered at risk.

Dr. Wajedul Islam Khan said that arrangements should be made to start small factories with incentives so that the income of the workers can be maintained. However, he said that the health care system should be given utmost importance and rations and food supply should be ensured for the workers in its own system. He emphasized on ensuring the health protection of the workers by creating social safety net.

Anwar Hossain said that if all the issues raised in today’s discussion are properly implemented, it would be beneficial for the working people.

In his welcome address, Nazrul Islam Khan said that it was not possible to take adequate preparation in this regard as COVID-19 is a new disease. The health workers have suffered the most while dealing with this disease professionally. Besides, the members of the police force have been affected by the disease in the administrative field. Many health care providers, including doctors and nurses have been infected and killed. BILS is engaged in information research and advocacy. He said precise information needs to be kept on how many workers have died of COVID-19 and its symptoms.

In his concluding speech Md. Habibur Rahman Shiraz said, the webinar was organized to determine the steps to be taken by all parties to deal with the COVID-19 situation. He said it would be helpful for all parties to follow the recommendations.

Presentation: COVID 19: Ensuring Occupational Health and Safety for All (Workers, Front Liners and Service Providers)