The murder earlier this year of a Bangladeshi union organizer is part of an escalation of attacks on the nation’s 4 million garment workers who seek to change abusive working conditions, says Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity (BCWS).
Akter, who just ended a visit to the United States sponsored by Vanderbilt University and the International Labor Rights Forum (ILTF), worked closely with her BCWS colleague and factory union organizer, Aminul Islam, who was murdered earlier this year, his body found beaten and tortured. Islam also was a leader of Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation (BGIWF), As recently as mid-September, Bangladesh police fired rubber bullets and tear gas at tens of thousands of garment workers rallying outside factories in an industrial area near Dhaka.
The violence against workers seeking to improve their conditions and the murder of a union activist have made workers fear forming unions. Although workers are willing to walk out of a factory demanding improvements, they are afraid to join a union because that could make them a target for firing or worse, says Akter, whose organization is a close partner of the Solidarity Center.
“They see the face [of Aminul] when he was alive and see the face when he is dead, and they are afraid,” she says.
Representatives of the Bangladesh garment sector were among the 23-member delegation accompanying Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, who attended the 67th United Nations General Assembly in New York. They are urging the United States to allow duty-free access of their products. Global labor rights activists say the Bangladeshi garment industry should not have such benefits until factory working conditions improve and violence against workers ends.
The violence against Bangladeshi workers has captured the attention of human rights activists and policymakers in the United States. It was the subject of a human rights hearing in Congress and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, on a recent trip to Bangladesh, specifically addressed the unsolved murder of Aminul.
Bangladesh is now the world’s second-largest clothes exporter with overseas garment sales topping $19 billion last year, or 80 percent of total national exports. Yet the base pay for a garment worker in Bangladesh is the equivalent of $37 a month—the same monthly amount it costs to buy food for one person.
Garment workers also are subject to verbal and physical abuse, unrealistic production targets and working conditions that may provide 25 toilets for a factory with 5,000 employees, says Akter, who was joined by Babul Akhter, president of the Bangladesh Garments & Industrial Workers Federation (BGIWF). In 2010, two factory fires that year killed dozens of workers.
Akter, Akhter and Aminul were imprisoned in 2010 on false charges for trying to improve the working conditions of garment workers. While imprisoned, Akter says she was interrogated for long periods and Akhter was beaten.
Akter, who started working in garment factories years ago as a young girl, says that stopping the violence against workers will begin after the government finds and prosecutes those who murdered Islam.
Take action now: Urge Bangladesh Prime Minister Hasina to investigate Islam’s murder, ensure the safety of workers and drop charges against labor rights activists.
The Solidarity Center spoke to Kalpona Akter and Babul Akhter during their visit to Washington, D.C.