As we approach April 24, the fourth anniversary of the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh that killed more than 1,130 garment workers and severely injured thousands more, the Solidarity Center is posting first-person stories of three garment worker union organizers who were deeply involved in the aftermath of Rana Plaza and who were arrested in December on baseless and dangerous charges, following wage strikes in the Ashulia garment district.
Asaduzzaman Asad (Asad), a long-time organizer with the Bangladesh Independent Garment Workers Union Federation (BIGUF) that has helped thousands of workers in 36 factories form unions, was one of the more than 35 people arrested in the December crackdown. Police took him from his home on December 22 and later charged him with involvement in a January 2015 political opposition violence case involving a bus burning in which he had no involvement. The case carries punishment of death or up to life imprisonment.
After being denied bail repeatedly, the high court eventually granted Asad bail. He was released on February 27 after spending 68 days in jail. The case is still pending.
Asad, who has helped thousands of garment workers form unions, now faces trumped up charges as part of a government crackdown on union activity.
“I’m originally from Ranjpur (northern Bangladesh). My father died when I was 13 years old, and our financial condition was so bad that I had to stop my education. When I was around 15, I needed to work so I came to Dhaka, and then when I was around 17 or 18, I started working in a garment factory making 500 taka ($6.16) a month. I was the youngest of eight children. I can still remember before my mother died that she needed 10,000 taka ($125) for a gallbladder operation but I couldn’t arrange it.
“I first got involved with BIGUF around 1994 or 1995. Some of the workers in the garment factory I was working in then would go to BIGUF so I would go with them.
“When I used to visit BIGUF office at that time, I would always sing and people loved it. We had a good environment.
“Around 1997 or 1998, Solidarity Center had a two-month internship program (for garment workers) that I participated in. Because I went through the internship program, I was able to begin conducting Friday seminars for other workers on labor law, union organizing, and so on at the BIGUF office.
“I love this work even though I know there’s a lot of risk. I get lots of enjoyment when I work with the people. I put myself in the position of the worker. I see people coming from the villages and they are coming from a very poor background.
Face-to-Face with Death at Rana Plaza
“After the collapse of Rana Plaza, I went to the site and worked there for 14 days. I helped on the medical team and went to the field where the dead bodies were kept. The feelings I had after going to that area cannot be expressed. I did lots of interviews with the workers there and attended some of the meetings when the Solidarity Center filed a legal case about the incident.* When I saw the people grieving, the people mourning, I could not think about myself.
“After Rana Plaza, we began to get union registration, but the hidden obstacles are still there. There are still many attempts to destroy the unions.
Arrested after Garment Worker Strikes
“Arif (another BIGUF organizer) and I live together above the BIGUF office in Gazipur. On December 22, the police came to our room. We told the police we have no work in Ashulia, but they didn’t allow us to talk. They handcuffed us and took us away in their car. They took us to the detective branch office and asked us questions about BIGUF. After a while, the police told us to be quiet while they waited for instructions. On December 24, we were sent to the police station and then from there to the jail. At the jail, we learned about that we were being charged with: a vandalizing case but we not told what type of vandalizing case.
We were confident that we would get bail because we had nothing to do with the case. But we felt bad when we learned we were arrested because (high government officials ordered his arrest). We felt sad about what would happen. If police want to file a false case against us, there’s nothing we can do. Our whole life will be spoiled. We found one person who was charged in the same case as us and he will be in jail for between 10 and 12 years.
If this case doesn’t get dropped against us as soon as possible, it will be a problem. Our names need to be dropped from the charge sheets based on the final police report finding that we don’t have anything to do with this incident. We were not named in the case.
When I was first arrested, I didn’t want to tell my wife. Finally, I called her, but told her not to share with others what happened because rumors would spread quickly. However, people came to know. But my wife also used to work in a garment factory and she was one of us. Naturally, she was sad and she was alone. My sisters cried a lot.
I have been involved with several big campaigns with BIGUF, but when I first came from the village to Dhaka I was nothing. After I did the Solidarity Center internship program, I had the opportunity to be with the people, be with my brothers and sisters. I’ve gone to factories to help workers after fires, I went to Rana Plaza. I’m proud of all these things.
* The Solidarity Center worked with Bangladesh lawyers to file a civil case on behalf of the family of one worker killed in the incident. The first-of-its-kind lawsuit sought just compensation for the irreparable loss of the family’s husband, father and chief breadwinner.
As we approach April 24, the fourth anniversary of the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh that killed more than 1,130 garment workers and severely injured thousands more, the Solidarity Center is posting first-person stories of three garment worker union organizers who were deeply involved in the aftermath of Rana Plaza and who were arrested in December on baseless and dangerous charges, following wage strikes in the Ashulia garment district in December.
Mohammad Golam Arif, a long-time organizer with the Bangladesh Independent Garment Workers Union Federation (BIGUF) that has helped thousands of workers in 36 factories form unions, was one of the more than 35 people arrested in the December crackdown. Police took him from his home on December 22 and later charged him with involvement in a January 2015 political opposition violence case involving a bus burning in which he had no involvement. The case carries punishment of death or up to life imprisonment.
After being denied bail repeatedly, the high court eventually granted Arif bail. He was released on February 27 after spending 68 days in jail. The case is still pending.
Arif was among more than two dozen garment worker union organizers arrested for his union work.
“I got my first job as a garment worker in Mirpur (an area in Dhaka) in 1993 when I was 12 years old, making 300 taka ($3.60) a month as a thread cutter. My father told me he was going to bring me from the village to Dhaka so I could become a motor mechanic, but I missed the opportunity and started at a factory instead.
“The next year I changed factories, where there was one worker involved with a trade union and an active leader of BIGUF. He brought me to the inauguration program of BIGU (predecessor to BIGUF) in December of 1994. Management later terminated 22 workers in that factory for union organizing, and I moved on to another factory. But eventually I went back to this factory and helped organize a union there with the help of BIGU.
“In 1997, BIGUF got registered as a federation and my factory was one of the first six BIGUF-affiliated unions. I was general secretary of the union. Twice I was beaten by management (because of union activity).
“I started working in a garment factory again where I tried to organize another union. All workers united with BIGUF but management closed down the factory.
“After that, I started helping out with Solidarity Center’s fire safety program for garment workers at that time. I was a fire safety educator.
‘Instructions from a Higher Authority to Arrest Us’
“A lot has changed since Rana Plaza. And that’s one reason I began working full-time as an organizer for BIGUF. BIGUF is not politically affiliated. We actively work with the workers.
“When we were arrested (in December), we were physically and mentally worried but we knew we didn’t do anything. I am married with a five-and-a-half-year-old son. My wife learned that I was arrested after six days and my parents after one month. My mother was very worried but my father was strong since he knew I didn’t do anything.
“This kind of incident has happened in the past (arrests of activists) but this time it is also different. They are trying to destroy us by linking us to the (political) opposition parties.
“If they thought we had something to do with this, why didn’t they involve us in a garment case? They only told us after they arrested us that they had instructions from a higher authority that they had to arrest us.
“Initially, when we were arrested the workers couldn’t understand what had happened but they came to support us. Union leaders came to visit us in jail. When we are in danger, union leaders extend their support.”
A brutal attack against a union leader and his brother in Honduras is the latest in escalating violence directed at worker rights activists there, according to the Honduran National Network for Violence Against Trade Unionists and other Solidarity Center partners in the country.
Moisés Sánchez, secretary general of the melon export branch of the Honduran agricultural workers’ union, Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Agroindustria y Similares (STAS), and his brother, union member Misael Sánchez, say they were attacked late last week by six men wielding machetes as they left the union office in the southern town of Choluteca, an area where agricultural workers harvest melons and other export produce.
Miseal was seriously injured after the attackers slashed his face with a machete, and Moisés was beaten for nearly an hour and told he would be murdered if he continued to assist melon workers in gaining their rights at work through the union. Misael left the hospital on Monday and is expected to survive.
Six men attacked union member Misael Sánchez and his brother, Moisés Sánchez, a union leader, as part of a campaign targeting union activists. Credit: STAS
Honduran Government Not Protecting Targeted Union Activists
Last year, some 20 Honduran trade union activists were killed or threatened for their efforts in helping workers improve their harsh working conditions.
In recent weeks, violence or threats of violence against union activists has escalated. Isela Juárez Jiménez, president of the public employee union SITRASEMCA, says she recently suffered an attempted kidnapping. Juárez Jiménez, began receiving death threats in 2015, and her motorbike was rammed in September by a white Toyota, which had been following her for days.
Two other union leaders, Nelson Núñez of the banana and agricultural worker federation, FESTAGRO, and Miguel Angel López of the public-sector electrical workers’ union STENEE, say they recently have been followed, with López reporting a man gesturing to pull out a pistol after pulling up to his car window. Both Núñez and López received death threats last year for their organizing efforts in Honduras. Núñez’s most recent threats similarly relate to the organizing efforts in Choluteca. Patricia Riera, another FESTAGRO organizer, was the first organizer to receive death threats related to a melon worker union organizing effort in Choluteca.
Although the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights last year ordered the Honduran government to protect targeted union members, Honduras has not done so. The Network against Violence in Honduras and its sister organization in Guatemala are calling on the Honduran government to provide private security to activists who receive death threats. The networks are urging the government to investigate all murders and bring to justice the perpetrators—both those who committed the acts and those who planned them.
Workers Fired, Harassed for Seeking Union
Melon workers on plantations across the Choluteca region have long endured worker rights abuses. After they sought to improve their working conditions by forming unions in 2016 with STAS, a FESTAGRO affiliate, employers intimidated and illegally fired many workers, despite Honduran law and international conventions making it illegal to retaliate against workers for organizing unions to protect their rights on the job.
According to FESTARGO, plantation owners forced the first four union leaders to renounce the union, fired 21 union members during the spring 2016 planting season, and refused to rehire 35 unionized workers for the fall harvest. And after 47 security workers at one plantation joined the union in March, the company fired all of them.
Despite touted progress toward fulfilling the Monitoring and Action Plan developed with the U.S. government to address labor rights violations, retaliation against workers seeking unions and sustained anti-union attacks and violence persist.
The Monitoring and Action Plan was created after the AFL-CIO and 26 Honduran unions in 2012 filed a submission with the U.S. Department of Labor on the Honduran government’s failure to enforce its labor laws under the labor chapter of the Central American Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA). The submission cited examples from 17 worksites spanning the manufacturing, agriculture and port sectors.
In a 2015 Public Report on the 2012 DR-CAFTA labor chapter complaint, the U.S. Office of Trade and Labor Affairs found ongoing basic labor rights violations at these same export plantations, including nonpayment of minimum wages and legally mandated benefits, wage theft, child labor and allowing children to use hazardous chemicals, and failure to provide potable water, social security enrollment and days to rest.
Update: Striking mine workers are standing strong despite the Peru Ministry of Labor declaring their strike illegal during a second appeal process yesterday and company threats to fire all the workers if they do not return to work by Wednesday. Construction workers, members of the Peruvian General Workers Confederation (CGTP), announced that they will join the strike in solidarity.
On Sunday, police fired tear gas at strikers as they walked a picket line near an industrial railroad bridge above the Osmore River. The striking workers now control both sides of the bridge, preventing rail passage of the minerals from the mines to the nearby town of Ilo, where there is the refinery and the port. On Tuesday, the SUT-SPCC union is conducting worker assemblies in Ilo to make decisions for next steps.
Some 2,000 miners on strike at Southern Copper Corp. in Peru (SPCC) are meeting with government negotiators again today over issues that prompted their walkout: improved profit-sharing, better medical care, an end to company surveillance of workers and the reinstatement of dismissed workers. (Workers and their families rally in this video.)
Miners’ families rallied in support of the striking workers. Credit: Colectivo Resistencia Sur Tacna
The miners, members of the Sindicato Unificado de la Southern y Anexos (SUT SPCC), went on strike last week after negotiations broke down, halting operations at the Toquepala and Cuajone mines. The union’s general secretary, Jorge Campos, was arbitrarily dismissed in 2016, according to the miners, and his reinstatement is among their demands.
From the United States, the United Steelworkers condemned the company’s attempts to fire striking workers and the decision of the Peruvian Labor Ministry to declare the strike illegal. The ministry argued the issues are not subject to collective bargaining and the union has appealed the ruling.
IndustriALL Director Fernando Lopes also condemned the actions of the company, noting it is part of Grupo Mexico, “known for its violations of freedom of association in Mexico and the USA. Peruvian workers will not let the company do the same thing to them. We extend all our support to the union and the federation.”
Also, IndustriALL General Secretary Valter Sanches wrote to SPCC company president, Oscar González Rocha, to urge him to negotiate in good faith with the SUT SPCC.
The SUT SPCC is affiliated to the National Federation of Miners and Metalworkers of Peru (FNTMMSP), which is in turn affiliated to IndustriALL Global Union.
Workers who migrate to other countries for jobs often do not know their rights when they arrive, and many, like domestic workers, toil in isolation, where they are easily exploited by employers.
Rosalie Ewengue, a domestic worker in Morocco from the Democratic Republic of Congo, was among them. But after taking part in an awareness-raising campaign with Afrique Culture Maroc, she learned about her rights in the country and on the job, including how to apply for legal status—and now helps other domestic workers do the same.
Working with the Collectif des Travailleurs Migrants au Maroc (Morocco Migrant Workers Organization), in partnership with the Solidarity Center, Rosalie is reaching out to migrant domestic workers across Morocco.
Rosalie’s story is the latest personal narrative on the Solidarity Center Workers Equality Forum. The online, interactive Equality Forum connects working people and amplifies their voices by enabling them to share their stories, joys, struggles and strategies to better their lives and livelihoods.
Find out more about Rosalie’s story here and meet other workers from around the world, including Lwin Lwin Mar, a Burmese garment worker, and Sam Oliver, a union shop steward working on a Liberian rubber plantation.