[Marxism] Fighting for Bangladesh Labor, and Ending Up in Pauper’s Grave

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Mon Sep 10 07:11:25 MDT 2012


NY Times September 9, 2012
Fighting for Bangladesh Labor, and Ending Up in Pauper’s Grave
By JIM YARDLEY

ASHULIA, Bangladesh — His tiny office was lost among the hulking garment 
factories that churn out cargo pants or polo shirts for brands like Gap 
or Tommy Hilfiger, yet workers managed to find Aminul Islam. They came 
with problems. Unpaid wages. Abusive bosses. Mr. Islam, a labor 
organizer, fought for their rights.

Security forces found Mr. Islam, too. His phone was tapped, the police 
regularly harassed him, and domestic intelligence agents once abducted 
and beat him, his co-workers and family say. More than once, he was told 
his advocacy for workers was hurting a country where garment exports 
drive the domestic economy.

And then no one could find Mr. Islam.

He disappeared April 4. Days later, his family discovered that he had 
been tortured and killed. His murder bore a grim familiarity in a 
country with a brutal legacy of politically motivated killings, and it 
raised a troubling question: Was he killed for trying to organize workers?

Five months later, Mr. Islam’s killing remains under investigation. 
There have been no arrests in the case, and the police say they have 
made little progress.

On the day he disappeared, Mr. Islam was trying to resolve a labor 
impasse at factories that stitch shirts for Tommy Hilfiger, American 
Eagle and other global brands. Then an acquaintance arrived 
unexpectedly, accompanied by a woman in a veil. The man, now suspected 
of having ties to security agencies, had an urgent request, that Mr. 
Islam officiate at his wedding.

Mr. Islam rode off in a rickshaw to help him and was never seen again.

It is unclear if Mr. Islam was killed because of his work, and it is 
possible that he was killed for an altogether different motive. But his 
labor advocacy had collided with powerful interests in Bangladesh, now 
the second leading exporter of apparel in the world, after China. Cheap, 
nonunion labor is essential to the export formula in Bangladesh, where 
the minimum wage for garment workers is $37 a month. Unions are almost 
nonexistent in apparel factories.

Ordinarily, a murder in Bangladesh attracts little outside attention, 
but Mr. Islam’s death has inspired a fledgling global campaign, with 
protests lodged by international labor groups and by European and 
American diplomats, including Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. 
This outside pressure is partly because so many global brands now use 
Bangladeshi factories. But Mr. Islam also worked for local labor groups 
affiliated with the A.F.L.-C.I.O., a connection to the American labor 
movement that has infused his death with geopolitical overtones.

For years, mutual suspicion has defined the relationship between the 
labor federation and the Bangladeshi establishment. Citing labor abuses, 
the A.F.L.-C.I.O. is currently petitioning Washington to overturn trade 
preferences for Bangladesh, infuriating Bangladeshi leaders and casting 
suspicions on the domestic labor groups nurtured by the federation, 
including those where Mr. Islam worked.

“It was viewed as, ‘Why are you trying to destroy our economy?’ ” said 
Alonzo Suson, who runs an A.F.L.-C.I.O. training center in Dhaka known 
as the Solidarity Center. “The federations that supported the 
A.F.L.-C.I.O. are viewed as not being loyal, as being traitors.”

Mr. Islam’s work often made him a target. In 2010, after angry wage 
protests shook the country, the authorities charged Mr. Islam and two of 
his bosses with “antistate” activities. Harassment by police and 
intelligence agents became so intense that Mr. Islam’s bosses sought a 
truce: a secret meeting was held between Mr. Islam and the director of 
the main domestic spying agency, the National Security Intelligence 
Agency, or N.S.I.

A senior government official, interviewed about the case, denied any 
involvement by the spying agency in Mr. Islam’s death. But Mr. Islam’s 
colleagues worry that the lack of progress on the case reflects a lack 
of commitment by the authorities on labor rights.

“Who is so powerful?” asked Kalpona Akter, who had been Mr. Islam’s boss 
and friend, “that they killed Aminul — yet is still untouchable?”

A Voice for Workers

Aminul Islam was a small man, barely 5 feet 4 inches tall, 
serious-minded and bearing the beard that signifies a devout Muslim. In 
February, he spent 40 days on a religious program canvassing villages 
and encouraging people to be better Muslims. In a Muslim nation, his 
piety brought him respect and lent him stature as a labor organizer.

He had started as a worker at the Shasha Denim garment factory in the 
teeming industrial zones ringing parts of Dhaka, the capital. The area 
is chockablock with factories. Trucks ramble down dirt roads or cracked 
highways, with traffic sometimes backing up for hours. At shift changes, 
hundreds of thousands of workers pour in and out of the nondescript 
concrete buildings that produce many of the clothes sold in American stores.

At Shasha Denim, Mr. Islam’s co-workers elected him to a committee in 
2005 to raise grievances with management. Within a year, the company had 
fired him. Undeterred, he took his case to court and won, only to see 
the factory owner invoke a legal provision allowing him to pay Mr. Islam 
a salary of about $30 a month without reinstating him in his job.

To learn about labor rights, Mr. Islam had attended workshops at the 
Solidarity Center in Dhaka. Affiliated with the A.F.L.-C.I.O., the 
nonprofit Solidarity Center has 23 field offices on four continents. 
Bangladesh already had established labor federations, many of which are 
aligned with political parties and draw members from public sector 
industries. But the Solidarity Center has kept a distance from these 
unions, wary of their political affiliations and skeptical of their 
influence in the garment sector.

Instead, the Solidarity Center focused on a handful of newer labor 
federations and nonprofit groups led by younger labor leaders. By 2006, 
two of these groups had hired Mr. Islam as an organizer in Ashulia, one 
of the big industrial zones outside Dhaka.

“He was vocal, and he was fearless,” said Ms. Akter, head of the 
Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity, a nonprofit labor group. 
“Whenever workers came to him, he took them as his own case, as if it 
was his own pain.”

By 2010, business analysts were praising Bangladesh as a manufacturing 
power, and global brands rushed to take advantage of the country’s 
rock-bottom labor costs. Workers, though, were seething. The monthly 
minimum wage for a garment worker was then about $21, not including 
overtime and bonuses. Inflation was soaring and protests began to spill 
out of factories in the industrial ring outside Dhaka.

Mr. Islam tried to act as a mediator, his co-workers say, imploring 
workers not to vandalize. He had already recruited a growing number of 
workers to join the labor groups affiliated with the A.F.L.-C.I.O., a 
trend noticed by intelligence officials. That April, Babul Akhter, head 
of one of the labor groups, said an N.S.I. agent warned him “to refrain 
from” discussing labor rights with workers or the agency would take 
“strong action” against them.

“Why are you guys, and Aminul, talking to them?” Mr. Akhter recalled the 
agent asking him. “He asked me, ‘Do you have the right to do this work?’ ”

As the 2010 protests continued, the authorities revoked the registration 
for the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity, the nonprofit labor 
group that employed Mr. Islam. His bosses, Kalpona Akter and Babul 
Akhter, were arrested and accused of inciting worker riots, charges they 
denied and interpreted as a heavy-handed effort to shut down their 
organizing. Mr. Islam faced similar charges.

But the most brazen intimidation came that June, when Mr. Islam was 
abducted and tortured by a group of thugs, led by an N.S.I. agent, his 
family and colleagues say. He told co-workers that he had been taken 
north of Dhaka and beaten badly. He said the agent pressured him to sign 
a document incriminating his colleagues, even threatening to kill him 
and his family, before Mr. Islam managed to escape.

“During the torture, they told him, ‘You are trying to become a leader 
of the workers,’ ” recalled another organizer, Laboni Akter, who worked 
closely with Mr. Islam. “They told him, ‘We follow you. We listen on 
your phone.’ ”

A Secret Truce

Workers won a partial victory after the 2010 riots, as Prime Minister 
Sheikh Hasina raised the monthly minimum wage to about $37. Many labor 
activists believed the next step should have been to lift restrictions 
on workers’ organizing. Street protests would be less likely, they 
argued, if workers thought a fair, impartial process existed to resolve 
disputes.

Bangladeshi officials instead have focused on oversight. A special 
government committee, called the Crisis Management Cell, now monitors 
the garment sector. An entirely new law enforcement agency was created, 
the Industrial Police, empowered to collect intelligence and pre-empt 
labor unrest in industrial areas.

After his ordeal, Mr. Islam lowered his profile. Kalpona Akter said 
N.S.I. agents were calling so regularly that she moved Mr. Islam to a 
quieter industrial area to put some distance between him and the angry 
protests still happening in Ashulia. At one point, she asked him if he 
wanted to quit.

“He said, ‘No, I want to work. It is my passion,’ ” she recalled.

Finally, in late 2010, an intermediary arranged a secret meeting that 
included Mr. Islam and the director of the National Security 
Intelligence Agency. The meeting — confirmed by three people with 
knowledge of the meeting — was an attempt to clear the air so that Mr. 
Islam could continue to work in safety. The director gave Mr. Islam his 
cellphone number and told him to call if he had a problem.

But last March, more than a dozen officers took Mr. Islam away, his 
family and co-workers say. For several hours, officers with the 
Industrial Police questioned him about unfounded rumors that he was 
planning to organize 10,000 workers to participate in an opposition 
political rally on March 12. Not true, Mr. Islam had responded. The 
officers allowed him to leave but required him to return to the station 
on the day of the rally.

At roughly the same time, a protest in Ashulia paralyzed the Shanta 
Denim factory, which made clothes for Nike, Tommy Hilfiger, American 
Eagle and a range of other American brands. The dispute had a fluky 
spark: An angry confrontation had broken out after managers had refused 
to allow workers an afternoon off to watch the Bangladesh national 
cricket team play for the Asia Cup championship. But soon it swelled 
into a standoff over wages, sexual harassment of female workers and 
other concerns.

Workers sought out Mr. Islam, who began exchanging regular phone calls 
with a high-ranking government security official to try to broker a 
deal. On the early evening of April 4, Mr. Islam had negotiated a 
breakthrough. The next morning, workers would return to the factory.

By then, Mr. Islam had disappeared.

Evidence From a Grave

Two days later, a photograph appeared in Amar Desh, a newspaper 
circulated in Mr. Islam’s home village. It was the face of an 
unidentified dead man whose body had been discovered by the police in 
Tangail, about 40 miles from Dhaka. Someone in the village grabbed the 
newspaper and rushed to Mr. Islam’s family home.

When the family reached Tangail, the police had buried the body in a 
pauper’s grave. The corpse was exhumed and showed evidence of torture. 
In police photographs of the body, Mr. Islam’s knees are smashed and his 
toes broken. Someone had cut or drilled a hole beneath his right knee. A 
medical official concluded that he bled to death.

“This kind of torture was definitely by a professional goon squad,” Ms. 
Akter said.

Torture and extrajudicial killings have existed in Bangladesh since its 
founding in 1971. In a scathing 2009 report, the International Crisis 
Group wrote that Bangladesh’s police “have a well-deserved reputation 
for brutality, corruption and incompetence.” Too often, the report 
noted, security forces served at the behest of powerful interests.

“Wealthy businessmen in particular have a history of buying police 
support to increase profit margins,” the report stated, citing a human 
rights lawyer who complained of “numerous examples of garment factory 
owners bribing police officials to force workers protesting late wages 
to work.”

In 2007 and 2008, when a military-backed caretaker government ruled 
Bangladesh, at least 297 people died in extrajudicial killings, 
according to Odhikar, a Bangladeshi human rights group. When she took 
office as prime minister in 2009, Ms. Hasina promised to restore 
democratic practices and put an end to vigilante-style killings.

But nearly four years later, progress has been halting. In January, 
Human Rights Watch noted that security forces “remain above the law” and 
described the rise of a new problem — “enforced disappearances” — in 
which a growing number of people have disappeared after being abducted.

Mr. Islam’s co-workers believe his case fits the same pattern, even as 
the authorities deny any involvement by security agencies. In July, Ms. 
Hasina seemed frustrated by the outside attention on the case, saying 
that suspicions about security forces were unfounded and that Mr. 
Islam’s image as a labor leader was misleading, since he actually worked 
for a nonprofit group. “Why don’t you inform the embassies of the 
Western countries that Aminul was not a workers’ leader?” she said, 
according to The Independent, a Dhaka publication.

One of the biggest mysteries in the case involves Mustafiz Rahman, the 
man who sought Mr. Islam’s help in arranging his wedding on the night 
that Mr. Islam disappeared. Mr. Islam’s co-workers say Mr. Rahman had 
ties to security forces, while an investigative account in the New Age, 
a Bangladeshi publication, said Mr. Rahman had helped the police arrest 
a different labor organizer and had been seen in the presence of 
intelligence agents.

He has not been seen or located since the day Mr. Islam disappeared.

Leaders of the biggest Bangladeshi labor federations have condemned Mr. 
Islam’s killing but also complained that the Solidarity Center and its 
unions initially shunned them and looked overseas for help.

“They didn’t do anything on the ground,” said Roy Ramesh Chandra, head 
of the country’s biggest labor federation, a government ally. “They have 
only asked for solidarity support from the outside. They only send 
e-mails that tarnish the image of the country, industry, even the trade 
union movement. That is not acceptable to us.”

This concern about national image is a major reason some of Mr. Islam’s 
supporters believe the government may have considered him a threat. He 
had documented his 2010 abduction and torture on a labor Web site. This 
year, he helped arrange interviews for an ABC News report about unsafe 
conditions at a factory where 29 workers died in a fire while sewing 
clothes for Tommy Hilfiger.

Mr. Islam lived in Hijolhati, a small, leafy village about an hour’s 
drive from the Ashulia factory district. His widow, Hosni Ara Begum 
Fahima, still lives in their simple concrete home. Mr. Islam has been 
reburied there, in the small dirt backyard.

Ms. Fahima, 32, is jobless and worried about her children’s future. She 
is still tormented by memories of nighttime telephone calls from police 
and intelligence agents. She does not know who killed her husband, but 
on the night he disappeared, she awoke from a nightmare: in her sleep, 
she had seen her husband crying, surrounded by security forces.

“Aminul used to work for the rights of factory workers,” she said. “I 
think that is why someone killed him.”

Julfikar Ali Manik contributed reporting.




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