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.
By JIM YARDLEY
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.
Made in Bangladesh: Export Powerhouse Feels Pangs of Labor Strife (August 24, 2012)
Arantxa Cedillo for The New York Times
Arantxa Cedillo for The New York Times
Arantxa Cedillo for The New York Times
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.