Putting a $ value on life

In Malaysia last week, I happened to meet an Australian project manager working in Kuala Lumpur. He was horrified at the safety standards especially those covering migrant workers from Bangladesh. It turns out that when a company is liable for roughly $3500 USD if a Bangladeshi worker dies on site, the business case for acceptable safety standards becomes very hard to articulate.

Using a Purchasing Power Parity (PPP) conversion factor estimated by the World Bank , the payout for death would be roughly equivalent to $94,500 USD for a Bangladeshi family. This sum, while still obscenely small compared to the damages a company should be paying for negligence, does however put the Bangladeshi man’s choices into better perspective.

Another way of looking at this is the average wage. Stats are hard to find but this article shows that a garment factory worker’s minimum wage was set in 2013 at $67 USD per month ($804 USD per year). So a death payout would be 4 or so years worth of wages.

It is these two numbers – the PPP conversion factor and the average wage that ultimately determines the relative worth of human life based on their country. However, PPP and average wage doesn’t really tell the true story.

The truth is this: a Bangladeshi man, like the cheerful smiling fellow in the photo above, a human being like all of us, is worth $3500 USD in Malaysia, far less than the safety equipment, training and work safety governance processes that would safeguard it.





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