A Bangladesh court on Tuesday ordered a conglomerate to compensate the relatives of seven workers who were shot by police during a labor protest at its majority-Chinese-funded power plant last month, amid calls for an open and prompt investigation into the incident.
The Bangladesh High Court also ordered two investigative committees to submit their reports on the April 17 incident, which started as an employee protest against pay and working conditions at the plant in the southeast and devolved into violence.
The Banshkhali Power Plant said it had already paid the families of the deceased workers $3,600 each, but human rights groups, who filed two petitions, had asked the court to order the firm to pay $353,000 to each family, according to Syeda Nasrin, a lawyer for one of the petitioners, Ain-O-Salish Kendra (ASK).
“Justice M. Enayetur Rahim said $3,600 was very nominal and ruled that the plant must pay the families an additional $2,400 as initial compensation,” Syeda said of the judge’s decision.
“The court also wanted to know why the families should not be compensated in the amount of $353,000 each,” she explained.
Five people were killed and dozens were injured last month in Chittagong district, southeastern Bangladesh, when protests over pay and working conditions at a coal-fired power plant turned violent and police opened fire on irate workers. Officials claimed they fired at workers in order to protect Chinese nationals on the premises.
Two workers died four days later in the hospital as a result of their injuries.
The International Labor Organization’s Bangladesh office said last week that it was “shocked and saddened” by the “tragic incident of police firing on workers” at the remote plant.
Tuomo Poutiainen, country director of ILO Bangladesh, said in a statement to BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service, that “we immediately approached the Ministry of Labor to understand the circumstances and to know more about the situation and if an official investigation was set up to look into the matter.”
“It is critical that the investigation’s findings be shared and discussed, that workers receive redress, and that authorities investigate the root causes of the incident and develop recommendations and actions to strengthen monitoring and social dialogue in this sector and for these types of working environments.”
The incident highlights the importance of ensuring decent working conditions “in these types of remote construction sites and workplaces where a number of sub-contracting arrangements are in place,” according to the ILO, referring to the under-construction plant in Chittagong’s Banshkhali sub-district, about 292 kilometers (181 miles) southeast of Dhaka.
On Tuesday, the High Court also directed the local administration to ensure that workers and villagers in the area are not harassed as a result of their protests or demands for compensation. According to ASK’s lawyer, it also requested a report on the initiatives being taken to treat injured workers and keep other workers safe.
Following the April 17 police shooting, the coal plant ceased operations. Over the incident, police and the company filed two separate cases against 3,500 workers, while some locals told BenarNews that worried laborers went into hiding.
The plant reopened last Friday, according to Azizul Islam, an inspector at the Banshkhali Police Station, who added that no arrests had yet been made.
According to ASK’s lawyer, families of the deceased workers are being pressured not to speak out about the incident.
The S. Alam Group, one of the country’s largest business groups, owns 70% of the Banshkhali power plant, along with two Chinese companies. According to information on the S. Alam Group website, China paid for more than 70% of the $2.5 billion facility’s cost.
The High Court on Tuesday ordered the state to respond within six weeks to the petitioners’ request for a judicial investigation into the incident.
“The state party will respond to the ruling after consulting with the local administration, police, the Power Division, and the Department of Labor,” said Bipul Bagmar, who represented the state at the hearing.
The power plant has previously been in the news, when locals, including fishermen and workers on salt and fish farms, protested its approval in 2016. At the time, police opened fire on protesters, killing four.
A civil society group that has been opposed to the plant’s construction since its inception claimed that the 2016 incident was not thoroughly investigated.
“A proper investigation into the previous killings did not take place,” Anu Muhammad, secretary of the National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power, and Ports, told Benar News.
“There is no way to learn the truth about the recent killings. A judicial investigation is the last hope. If a judicial investigation is conducted, civil society members must be involved to ensure that the government or the powerful owner does not interfere. “