A Bangladesh court Tuesday ordered a conglomerate to compensate relatives of seven workers gunned down by police during a labor protest at its majority Chinese-funded power plant last month, amid calls for a transparent and swift investigation into the incident.
The Bangladesh High Court also ordered two investigative committees to submit their reports within 45 days on the April 17 incident, which began as a protest by employees against pay and working conditions at the plant in the southeast and disintegrated into violence.
The Banshkhali Power Plant said it had already paid the families of the dead workers U.S. $3,600 each, but human rights groups, who filed two petitions, had requested that the court order the firm to pay $353,000 to each family, said Syeda Nasrin, a lawyer for Ain-O-Salish Kendra (ASK), one of the petitioners.
“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 told BenarNews about the judge’s order.
“The court also wanted to know why the families should not be compensated $353,000 each,” she said.
Last month, five people were killed and dozens injured in Chittagong district in southeastern Bangladesh as protests over pay and working conditions at a coal-fired power plant turned violent and police fired on angry workers. Officials had said they shot at workers to protect Chinese nationals on the premises.
Two workers died of their injuries four days later, while in hospital.
Last week, the International Labor Organization’s Bangladesh office said it was “shocked and saddened by the tragic incident of police firing on workers” at the remote plant.
“Upon learning of the incident we immediately approached the Ministry of Labor to understand better the circumstances and to know more about the situation and if an official investigation was set to look into the matter,” Tuomo Poutiainen, country director of ILO Bangladesh, said in a statement to BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.
“It is important that the results of the investigation are shared and discussed, that workers have redress, and that the authorities look into the root causes of the incident and come up with recommendations and actions on how to strengthen monitoring and social dialogue in this sector and for these types of working environments.”
The incident puts a focus on the need to ensure decent working conditions “in these types of remote construction sites and workplaces where a number of sub-contracting arrangements are in place,” ILO said, referring to the under-construction plant in the Banshkhali sub-district of Chittagong, some 292 km (181 miles) southeast of Dhaka.
‘Judicial probe is last hope’
On Tuesday, the High Court also asked the local administration to ensure that workers and villagers in the area are not harassed for having protested or for demanding compensation. It also sought a report into the initiatives being taken to treat injured workers and keep other workers safe, ASK’s lawyer said.
After the police shooting on April 17, the coal plant suspended operations. Police and the company filed two separate cases against 3,500 workers over the incident, while some locals told BenarNews that worried laborers went into hiding.
The plant reopened last Friday, Azizul Islam, an inspector at the Banshkhali Police Station, told BenarNews on Tuesday, adding that no arrests had been made yet.
ASK’s lawyer claimed that families of the deceased workers are being pressured to not talk about the incident.
The Banshkhali power plant is co-owned by the S. Alam Group, one of the country’s biggest business groups which has a 70-percent stake, and two Chinese companies. More than 70 percent of the $2.5 billion cost of the facility was financed by China, according to information from S. Alam Group’s website.
The High Court on Tuesday asked the state to respond within six weeks on why there should not be a judicial probe into the incident, as demanded by the petitioners.
“The state party will give a reply to the ruling after consultation with the local administration, police, the Power Division and the Department of Labor,” Bipul Bagmar, who represented the state in the hearing, told BenarNews.
The power plant has been in the news before, when locals, including fishermen and workers on salt and fish farms, protested the 3,000-acre project’s approval in 2016. At the time, police fired on protesters, killing four people.
A civil society group that has opposed the construction of the plant from the start, claimed the 2016 incident was not thoroughly investigated.
“A proper investigation did not happen for the previous killings,” Anu Muhammad, secretary of the National Committee to Protect Oil, Gas, Mineral Resources, Power and Ports, told Benar News.
“There is no possibility of finding out the truth about the latest killings. A judicial probe is the last hope. If a judicial probe takes place, civil society members must be involved to ensure there is no interference by the government or the powerful owner.”
Reported by BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service.