Will “Made in Bangladesh” become a scarlet letter?

Bangladesh is on front page of NEW YORK TIMES again, twice this month, as part of the series MADE IN BANGLADESH. We at Alal o Dulal first sounded the alarm over Aminul Islam’s murder in April, and dubbed this the “coming storm” in July. Of course, nobody listened. Certainly not our shonamdhonnyo government that dismisses all critiques as “enemies of the nation.” Keep playing that deaf drumbeat.

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

Workers on their way to work in Ashulia, Bangladesh, where a labor organizer was killed.

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Published: September 9, 2012 76 Comments

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.

Made in Bangladesh

Death of an Activist

This is the second of two articles examining the battle over labor rights in a leading garment-exporting country.

Multimedia
Arantxa Cedillo for The New York Times

Hosni Ara Begum Fahima, the widow of Aminul Islam, a labor organizer who was killed. 

Arantxa Cedillo for The New York Times

Hosni Ara Begum Fahima, Aminul Islam’s widow, with three children.

Arantxa Cedillo for The New York Times

Babul Akhter, head of a labor group, who said that a government agent warned him “to refrain from” discussing labor rights with workers or “strong action” would be taken against them.

Arantxa Cedillo for The New York Times

Kalpona Akter worked with Mr. Islam.

Arantxa Cedillo for The New York Times

A newspaper clipping showing a photo of Mr. Islam’s body. More Photos »

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.

6 comments

  1. Go through the comments section on NYT article (81 so far) and you will get the alarming signal of impending sanctions against Bangladesh garments. And yet, our politicians are busy with BNP-AL maramari, and so are citizens.

    JoanCaliforniaNYT Pick
    This story is like something from our own union busting past not to mention mob interference in the garment industry. As my late mother used to say, they’ll pay for everything except work. She wasn’t talking about Bangladesh, either.

    We’re stuck on the horns of the dilemma of whether to continue to help third world countries by manufacturing clothing there or returning these jobs to our country, which certainly would boost our own economy. The prices on brand name fashions aren’t bargain ones. I’m sure we can find both equipment and people who can cut or sew here.

    By outsourcing on a massive scale we can’t control the working conditions or even whether there is a relationship between cost and price to the American firm purchasing the items. We certainly can’t do much about union busting either.
    Sept. 10, 2012 at 11:57 a.m.RECOMMENDED3

    KennethSan Jose, CANYT Pick
    Please keep up the good work, Mr. Yardley. It’s time a major news publication in the West seriously addressed the topic of labor rights in the developing world, especially when it involves production of merchandise intended for consumption by those living in the West. As someone who once lived in Bangladesh, I have seen far too many factory owners (and their allies in law enforcement and various governing bodies) in Bangladesh act with absolute impunity. A case such as this only scratches at the surface of a problem that will take sustained attention and effort to address. Ideally the both major parties, the Awami League and the BNP, will make promises to improve the working condition at these factories during the upcoming election season, though there are many reasons to be pessimistic given the state of Bangladeshi national politics.
    Sept. 10, 2012 at 11:59 a.m.RECOMMENDED13

    blacklightNew York CityNYT Pick
    Much as I like my clothes, I don’t think they are worth anybody’s life.

    The United States and EU should impose penalties on Bangladesh originated clothing on the ground that Bangladesh’s labor practices are inconsistent with fair trade. Because these labor practices are clearly aimed at keeping prices unrealistically and unfairly low.

    I don’t buy from Tommy Hilfiger, American Eagle so it’s hard for me to top this non-buying with a personal boycott. Nevertheless, I will encourage friends and acquaintances to boycott Bangladesh made goods. We should have no qualms about it because only a small fraction of this money will go to the workers anyway.

    This is not just clothing. This is blood stained clothing.
    Sept. 10, 2012 at 12:15 p.m.RECOMMENDED16

    GwbearFloridaNYT Pick
    This story is tragic on so many levels. Western garment workers have lots of power here: if it was an essential demand, an absolute *must do* to conduct business in the West, things would be better for these workers. We who consume these products must apply real pressure on the brands, who would in turn apply pressure on the factories. Pressure is more than words or the occasional audit: it’s real control.

    Sadly, most in the US not care. As already stated in several of these responses, we do not even care about the well being of our *own* work force, and are very willing to buy into the corporate and Right wing demonization of our own union workers. We claim we want to keep jobs in the US, but do not see the essential connection between supporting US labor and improving the economy. We all believe being pro-labor is bad for the companies, so it’s bad for the US. The companies are already insanely profitable, but so much of their profit comes from sending the manufacturing overseas. Face facts: there is no trickle down for the US economy here – there isn’t really much trickle down for the countries where the manufacturing is done, as this article readily illustrates. The only winner is the company.

    The harsh story of the rights of workers in the US mirrors the story of the growth of US prosperity. Renewed attention on labor rights as an economic and social justice issue is long overdue in the US – and in those countries where most of our goods are manufactured.
    Sept. 10, 2012 at 1:45 p.m.RECOMMENDED13

    RyanNew YorkNYT Pick
    FLAG
    On March 25, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City caught on fire. 145 employees died because, the escape route was locked by the owners to prevent theft. However, the owners were acquitted on any wrongdoing at trial and twenty-three individual civil suits returned an average of $75 per life lost.

    The garments workers in Bangladesh are going through the same struggle that the garments workers in New York went through nearly one hundred years ago. The blood, sweat, and tears of American workers founded the prospersous nation that it is today. We hope the sacrifice of Bangladeshi workers will not go in vain.

    American corporate buyers can play a huge role in reversing the abuse by requiring their suppliers in Bangladesh to provide fair wages and safe working conditions. They can look at Apple as an example. Boycotting Bangladeshi products will make the poor garments workers even poorer.

    Full disclosure, I am a Bangladeshi expat.
    Sept. 10, 2012 at 4:25 p.m.RECOMMENDED7
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  2. More comments, look at the pattern. Also, hardly any Bangladeshi voices on here. Too busy to read the NYT? Too busy with other tamasha? This is a life and death struggle, and we are on losing end. Thank you PM for your utterly unhelpful statement “I never heard of Aminul Islam, who is he?”

    GoodwoodNova Scotia
    Americans and many other workers died to achieve what is today considered basic labour rights. It is amazing how quickly and easily many workers have stood by while people like the anti worker governor of Wisconsin take away rights. It is a known truth that capitalist and their lackeys, such as the Wisconsin governor think workers are a necessary evil and any actions to minimize their costs is good for the sacred cow of business. As people like Mr. Islam try to help their fellow villagers and likely die in the progress it would be wise to remember the sacrifices thousand of Americans have made to create the 5 day work week, strike down child labour laws and so on. If you don’t think it can’t happen again, it already is as what is left of the economy short term profit barons caused to collapse is forcing many workers to comply to hitherto unheard of concessions. It is a crisis created by the the powerful to yet again find ways to exploit those already low in resources. This is so black and white and any language of religion, God and the American dream is all opiate to suppress the outrage that should be pushing back.
    Sept. 10, 2012 at 8:45 a.m.RECOMMENDED49

    Rachel KreierPort Jefferson
    The crucial thing people in the U.S. and other rich countries need to get is that this is not just about the standard of living of people in Bangladesh. In a global market, wages and working conditions in Bangladesh and the other poor countries affect wages and working conditions in the rich countries. Either the condition of workers improves in the poor countries or the condition of workers gets worse in the rich countries. Jailing, torturing and killing labor organizers in poor countries hurts workers in poor and rich countries alike.
    Sept. 10, 2012 at 8:45 a.m.RECOMMENDED31

    James HadleyOrleans, MA
    Wages in Bengladesh are kept low in order for the factories to compete. And who is the competition? It is China, the only self-named “communist” state in the world of any importance. A workers’ paradise.
    Unions are attempting to organize Bengladeshi workers to improve wages and working conditions. Where does the expertise to do this come from? The United States, the largest economy in the world, and capitalist to its core. A dream world for accumulators.
    Obviously the terms “communist,” “capitalist,” “liberal,” “socialist” have lost their meaning in a world such as this one. There are only those who see and fight for social justice and those who love money.
    As we used to ask: “Which side are you on, which side are you on?”
    Sept. 10, 2012 at 8:44 a.m.RECOMMENDED27

    La_MolkasMount Rainier, MD
    the true costs of our endless consumption! we all look for the best bargains – that is just human nature but when we think that a Tommy Hi shirt costs more than the monthly wage to support a family we have definitely lost all touch with reality and social justice issues.

    Same issues as in the South African mines, and Walmart here in the US

    Fair Wages to all those who work a full week (and more)
    Sept. 10, 2012 at 8:52 a.m.RECOMMENDED26

    blacklightNew York CityNYT Pick
    Much as I like my clothes, I don’t think they are worth anybody’s life.

    The United States and EU should impose penalties on Bangladesh originated clothing on the ground that Bangladesh’s labor practices are inconsistent with fair trade. Because these labor practices are clearly aimed at keeping prices unrealistically and unfairly low.

    I don’t buy from Tommy Hilfiger, American Eagle so it’s hard for me to top this non-buying with a personal boycott. Nevertheless, I will encourage friends and acquaintances to boycott Bangladesh made goods. We should have no qualms about it because only a small fraction of this money will go to the workers anyway.

    This is not just clothing. This is blood stained clothing.
    Sept. 10, 2012 at 12:15 p.m.RECOMMENDED16

    Justice HolmesCharleston SC
    Standing up for labor, labor unions and the right to bargain collectively is dangerous and often deadly. Big corporations really don’t like unions and they take whatever steps necessary to stop them . Many union members and would be members were killed and brutalized in the US when the labor movement began; now all you have to do is buy a governor or force feed people that unions not a voracious bankers and CEOs are the problem in America. My sympathy to the widow is heightened by the deed sadness the I feel when I realize how easy it was for big money to extinguish the worker protections that many died for in this country.
    Sept. 10, 2012 at 10:07 a.m.RECOMMENDED16

    DilipGermany
    The Hunger for cheap goods in the Western World comes at a price in poorer nations of Asia and Africa. As the Western World has shut down its Textile Industries but with their monetary power are able to squeeze the poorer nations to supply every year cheaper goods. I am talking our of experiance as for 30 years I was selling textiles and gave up this trade as it became dirty and return wasn’t there to survive. The poor pay with their lives.
    Its time that “A FAIR PRICE” is paid for the Garments, which allows the factories in producing countries to make a profit and pay their workers. A Western Company demanding ever lower prices for a quality garment should be levied with penalties.
    Sept. 10, 2012 at 10:07 a.m.RECOMMENDED14

    Steve BolgerNew York City
    Productivity and population gains have been utilized only to enrich plutocrats and impoverish workers globally.
    Sept. 10, 2012 at 10:07 a.m.RECOMMENDED14

    Abu MinhajuddinDallas, Tx
    I see that a lot of you are saying that everyone should stop buying “made in Bangladesh” labels until the killers of Aminul are brought to justice. I agree with you a 100% that killers of Aminul should be punished and that the rights of the worker should be established along with a reasonable wage. However, I think a stop to buying Bangaldeshi product is not the best way to approach. This will results in punishing the same workers as they will be out of a job. Garments owners and the government of Bangladesh will not suffer as much as the garment workers if everyone stops buying “made in Bangladesh” labels. Being a Bangladeshi myself, I know first hand how much a job (no matter how low paying) in a factory means to so many families. How a mom is supporting a full family with so little money. In the western standards, the conditions that they live in are sub-human. But at least they survive.

    As I said, I’m with you in demanding justice of Aminul. I’m with you in demanding higher wages for garments workers. I’m with you in creating pressure on government of Bangladesh to bring the killers to justice. But I do not support a stop to buying products of Bangladesh. That will punish the wrong side.
    Sept. 10, 2012 at 10:07 a.m.RECOMMENDED14

    GwbearFloridaNYT Pick
    This story is tragic on so many levels. Western garment workers have lots of power here: if it was an essential demand, an absolute *must do* to conduct business in the West, things would be better for these workers. We who consume these products must apply real pressure on the brands, who would in turn apply pressure on the factories. Pressure is more than words or the occasional audit: it’s real control.

    Sadly, most in the US not care. As already stated in several of these responses, we do not even care about the well being of our *own* work force, and are very willing to buy into the corporate and Right wing demonization of our own union workers. We claim we want to keep jobs in the US, but do not see the essential connection between supporting US labor and improving the economy. We all believe being pro-labor is bad for the companies, so it’s bad for the US. The companies are already insanely profitable, but so much of their profit comes from sending the manufacturing overseas. Face facts: there is no trickle down for the US economy here – there isn’t really much trickle down for the countries where the manufacturing is done, as this article readily illustrates. The only winner is the company.

    The harsh story of the rights of workers in the US mirrors the story of the growth of US prosperity. Renewed attention on labor rights as an economic and social justice issue is long overdue in the US – and in those countries where most of our goods are manufactured.
    Sept. 10, 2012 at 1:45 p.m.RECOMMENDED13

    KennethSan Jose, CANYT Pick
    Please keep up the good work, Mr. Yardley. It’s time a major news publication in the West seriously addressed the topic of labor rights in the developing world, especially when it involves production of merchandise intended for consumption by those living in the West. As someone who once lived in Bangladesh, I have seen far too many factory owners (and their allies in law enforcement and various governing bodies) in Bangladesh act with absolute impunity. A case such as this only scratches at the surface of a problem that will take sustained attention and effort to address. Ideally the both major parties, the Awami League and the BNP, will make promises to improve the working condition at these factories during the upcoming election season, though there are many reasons to be pessimistic given the state of Bangladeshi national politics.
    Sept. 10, 2012 at 11:59 a.m.RECOMMENDED13

    LynnNew York
    I am not going to buy any clothes labeled “Made in Bangladesh” until the murderers of Mr. Islam, and their patrons, are brought to justice.
    Sept. 10, 2012 at 8:45 a.m.RECOMMENDED12

    brooklynforchangeNew York City
    What a tragedy!

    What is ILO or U.N. doing? (It’s almost a meaningless question.)

    Did you know that Bangladesh (i.e., undivided Bengal) was one of the most prosperous lands on earth before the British colonized the Indian subcontinent and brutalized and pauperized the country? Bangladesh suffered greatly in particular: its gold and textile were stolen, man-made famines were created, and then it was partitioned in 1947 where the poor was left behind to die.

    It is unbelievable to find this incredible land — so famous for its cultural, literary and artistic treasures one could perhaps only compare with Italy and France — is in so much distress now where nobody talks about its history and the root causes of its economic misery. As if that’s not important!

    On top of it, an IMF-dictated Wall Street-driven economic policy that has now turned particularly the so-called Third World upside down has caused devastation in Bangladesh and India; IMF’s Structural Adjustment Program has especially crushed the labor movement. The story here is the latest example of that tyranny. Governments and their crony media are of course complicit.

    We cannot simply look at this tragedy cursorily without knowing in-depth what game the global puppeteers are playing. I’d like to draw your attention to an article on the game IMF is playing in South Asia including India and Bangldesh.

    http://onefinalblog.wordpress.com/2012/05/26/new-imf-terror-in-india-can
    Sept. 10, 2012 at 10:07 a.m.RECOMMENDED11

    norman markowitznew brunswick, new jersey
    This is the face of “globalization” aka imperialism today, that is, the export of capital from rich countries to poor countries to produce goods with ultra-cheap labor for markets in rich countries, with no real development of domestic markets in the poor countries, no protections of any kind for workers, and of course no effective civil rights/civil liberties–military/police states are actually best to do the dirty work of these systems

    Bangla Desh today resembles the Pakistan which it freed itself from at the cost of untold numbers of lives in 1971. The history of India as the world’s largest colony, the irrational and destructive partition of India based on religious majorities after WWII, brokered by the British empire in its last stages, and the subsequent collapse of that partition are the specifics of this case. But these events are nothing new for similar “enterprise zone regions of Latin America and Africa.
    Without international fair labor standards, agreed to and enforced, these conditions can only breed more and more poverty and more and more violence.
    Sept. 10, 2012 at 4:28 p.m.RECOMMENDED9

    JimPardueMorroBay93442
    Thank you for pointing out what so many Americans have forgotten about our own history. It is purposely being omitted from classrooms these days.
    In reply to GoodwoodSept. 10, 2012 at 10:07 a.m.RECOMMENDED9

    PhilarktosTyler Hill, PA
    Seems that “Made in Bangladesh” is yet another label to avoid (wish it wasn’t so hard to avoid “China”) until the big brand names exert a bit more influence in ensuring labor rights or stop buying from the cheapest labor sources irrespective of the horrors supporting them.
    Sept. 10, 2012 at 8:46 a.m.RECOMMENDED8

    RyanNew YorkNYT Pick
    On March 25, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City caught on fire. 145 employees died because, the escape route was locked by the owners to prevent theft. However, the owners were acquitted on any wrongdoing at trial and twenty-three individual civil suits returned an average of $75 per life lost.

    The garments workers in Bangladesh are going through the same struggle that the garments workers in New York went through nearly one hundred years ago. The blood, sweat, and tears of American workers founded the prospersous nation that it is today. We hope the sacrifice of Bangladeshi workers will not go in vain.

    American corporate buyers can play a huge role in reversing the abuse by requiring their suppliers in Bangladesh to provide fair wages and safe working conditions. They can look at Apple as an example. Boycotting Bangladeshi products will make the poor garments workers even poorer.

    Full disclosure, I am a Bangladeshi expat.
    Sept. 10, 2012 at 4:25 p.m.RECOMMENDED7

    j. von hettlingenSwitzerland
    Business and politics overlap. Corrupt officials turn a blind eye to slavery and crime. Bangladesh’s garment industry has a creaky infrastructure. The workers are the lowest paid in the world. As an alternative to China, which has been seeing a wage hike in the sector, manufacturers all flock to Bangladesh. The death of prominent labour activist, Aminul Islam did have an impact on the industry, seeing violent protests with workers demanding better wages and conditions. Yet business leaders are defiant, warning that any further increase may damage the their competitiveness.
    Sept. 10, 2012 at 1:44 p.m.RECOMMENDED7

    BLMNiagara Falls
    Its no so long ago — only 80 to 100 years — since similar things happened in this country. And judging by the rush to “Right-to-Work” legislation in some states, its not so long before it will start happening again.

    This article, when combined with another recent one on the Third World poor selling thei organs in desperation, show the real state of affairs when the plutocrats get to run the show through “small” government. Same for the article on the “debt bondage” students from working poor backgrounds are forced to enter if they hope to get an eduations here in this country..
    Sept. 10, 2012 at 11:57 a.m.RECOMMENDED7

    SAKNew Jersey
    Thomas Balzac, The French writer, famously said that
    “behind every fortune lies a crime”. It is clear how Tommy Hilfiger,
    Nike and Apple have made their fortune by squeezing the labor.
    They can’t do that in USA so they have shifted their manufacturing
    to China, Bangladesh, Indonesia,etc.
    This will continue so long the political system is subservient to
    the capitalists. Social and economic justice will be a cry in
    wilderness.
    Sept. 10, 2012 at 11:57 a.m.RECOMMENDED7

    mfordATL
    My suspicion is that the lack of comments and interest in this article will serve as a good relative measurement of how much Americans really care about this issue. After all, abused workers are very easy to forget. My guess is that by the end of the day, the comments on this article will about 10th what you’d see in an article about something Romney or Obama uttered during lunch. Let’s go shopping!
    Sept. 10, 2012 at 10:07 a.m.RECOMMENDED7

    thandiwe DeeNew Rochelle, NY
    Yes yes yes to much that has been said. And what about socially just minded people pressuring the fashion icons about using their power to insist on fair treatment of the workers who make their profits possible? We always seem to ultimately come back to the question of how much profit is enough? What are our ultimate values? I don’t generally patronize Tommy HIlfinger but I would sure like to know what other clothing brands are created by the exploitation of Bangladesh and other workers and the tyranny enacted to please the master?
    Sept. 10, 2012 at 10:07 a.m.RECOMMENDED7

    FarinaPuget Sound
    We outsourced good-wage American jobs to save a few bucks on jeans and t-shirts and we end up with declining middle class. Oh, and also abusive, even murderous working conditions that resemble the turn of the last century in our country.

    Disgusting.

    I’d shop Made in the USA if it were even possible. But it really isn’t as long as we let our companies go for the bottom of the barrel each time.
    Sept. 10, 2012 at 1:43 p.m.RECOMMENDED6

    DemocracyNowEast Coast
    Please let us know more of the popular companies that employ such facilities and their abusive ways. That way, we can boycott them and take our business elsewhere.
    Sept. 10, 2012 at 1:16 p.m.RECOMMENDED6

    Joe DWestport Island, Maine
    FLAG
    One should keep in mind the poor conditions for workers in this country the next time they shop at Nike, Tommy Hilfigeror American Eagle.

  3. If you don’t think this is the coming crisis that will destroy Bangladesh’s economy, you’re too busy with other tamasha like yet another Prophet Muhammad controversy, or somesuch. Look at the NYT reader comments and you can see the contours of the coming Bangladeshi goods boycott.

    But we can just dismiss it as “foreign conspiracy” (yes, it was foreigners who sent riot police to brutalize factory workers instead of negotiating fair wage), “2/11 preparation” (yes, it was 1/11 organizers who made AL govt’s decision to offer workers a minimum wage far lower than what they demanded), “Yunus er kalo haat” (yes, it was Yunus who put the words in PM’s mouth “who is Aminul Islam?”), etc etc and feel we were in the right, while the economy collapses.

  4. Government of Bangladesh, in all its majesty, responds. “NYT, you pom Ghana?”

    September 26, 2012
    A Death in Bangladesh
    To the Editor:

    “Fighting for Bangladesh Labor, and Ending Up in Pauper’s Grave” (“Made in Bangladesh” series, front page, Sept. 10) targets Bangladesh’s ready-made garment industry, which has provided livelihoods for 3.5 million poor women.

    The murder of Aminul Islam, a labor organizer, is indeed very unfortunate and deplorable. The government of Bangladesh has accorded top priority to this case and has been doing everything possible to bring the perpetrators to justice.

    It appears that you publicize the negative aspects, often exaggerated, of Bangladesh, leaving aside its impressive achievements. In the face of such adverse publicity, it will be the poor women who will be the ultimate losers, causing a serious socioeconomic dislocation.

    With the death of one person, the news coverage seems to be aimed at crippling the entire industry. And we do not see the same kind of zeal in reporting the numerous gruesome killings of many labor activists in other countries throughout the world. Why?

    MUHAMMAD A. MUHITH
    Deputy Chief of Mission
    Embassy of Bangladesh
    Washington, Sept. 20, 2012

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