July 10, 2013—Newspapers in Bangladesh this week reported that charges against two worker rights advocates will be dropped and that the search for the people who tortured and murdered labor leader Aminul Islam last year will receive new focus. The news follows the decision by the U.S. government to suspend preferential trade benefits with Bangladesh because of chronic and severe labor rights violations.
Kalpona Akter and Babul Akhter were imprisoned in 2010 on false charges for trying to improve the working conditions of garment workers. While imprisoned, Kalpona, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity (BCWS), says she was interrogated for long periods and Babul was beaten. Kalpona and Babul, president of the Bangladesh Garments & Industrial Workers Federation (BGIWF), were later freed on bail.
The government has not officially informed Kalpona or Babul that the charges have been dropped, according to Solidarity Center staff in Dhaka, the capital.
In April 2012, Aminul’s body was found dozens of miles from his home, with signs of torture. Despite international outcry, including a U.S. congressional hearing and then U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s call for justice in the case, his murder has gone unsolved. He had sought to improve the working conditions of some 8,000 garment workers employed by Shanta Group, a garment manufacturer based in Dhaka. In 2010, Aminul also was arrested and beaten for his labor activism.
“If true, the Solidarity Center is pleased that these false charges have been dropped because that would demonstrate that the government of Bangladesh can act when it has the political will and motivation to do so,” says Tim Ryan, Solidarity Center Asia Regional Director.
On June 27, the United States suspended its Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) agreement with Bangladesh. Because the benefits are suspended and not terminated, Bangladesh has the opportunity to again qualify for the GSP benefit by improving worker rights, laws and practices. A key measure of that program will be whether newly registered unions will be allowed to represent worker interests.
The Solidarity Center has been working with the BCWS since the 1990s through BGIWF to educate garment workers about their rights under Bangladeshi law and international labor standards.