Bangladesh’s longstanding abuse of worker rights, failure to enforce labor laws, and increasing violence against labor activists, including threats and murder, were the focus of a human rights hearing yesterday on Capitol Hill, where a senior Solidarity Center staffer and other regional and rights experts provided testimony.
Tim Ryan, Solidarity Center Asia Regional Program Director, told members of the U.S. House of Representatives’ Tom Lantos Human Rights Commission that Bangladeshis toil at some of the lowest paid and most dangerous jobs in Asia. Despite a labor code that addresses pay, working hours, and on-the-job conditions, many Bangladeshi workers still face inadequate health and safety protections at work and receive less than the minimum wage, among other violations of their rights.
Because their attempts to organize have been thwarted, Ryan said, workers have no channel through which to voice their grievances and negotiate with management in order to improve their rights and working conditions. Strikes and worker actions are their only weapons in the fight for decent jobs that can support them and their families.
“Over the past three years, hundreds of garment workers have been injured, and some killed, in clashes with police while demonstrating or on strike for worker rights, most often higher wages,” said Ryan, who has been involved with worker rights in Bangladesh for the past 15 years. “Several prominent labor activists have been arrested and taken to trial on trumped-up charges associated with these demonstrations.”
Ryan cited the most recent, egregious example of violence against labor activists—the murder in early April of Aminul Islam, an organizer for the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation (BGIWF) whose body bearing signs of torture was found more than 60 miles away from where he had disappeared four days earlier. Aminul was a longtime friend and colleague of the Solidarity Center.
“Aminul trained, recruited, and organized workers in the RMG sector and the export processing zones,” said Ryan. “Due to his activities, Aminul was threatened by gangsters working for garment factory owners, was continuously under police surveillance, and was detained and beaten by the National Security Intelligence in June 2010. False criminal charges were filed against Aminul along with his colleagues in BGIWF and the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity for supposedly causing unrest during the minimum wage campaign by garment workers during the summer of 2010.”
Ryan said that although Bangladesh authorities are following up, observers in-country and throughout the world are concerned that no credible, transparent, and accountable investigation of the murder will actually take place. During a May visit to Bangladesh, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said that an independent investigation would be “a real test for the government and for the society to make sure you don’t say that anyone can have impunity.”
Ryan cited some “incremental” progress in achieving worker rights. For example, he said, child labor has been all but eliminated in Bangladesh’s ready-made garment (RMG) factories, but more than 7 million children still work in agriculture, manufacturing, mining, domestic service, and the hotel and restaurant industry. According to Solidarity Center reports published in 2008 and 2012 child labor persists in shrimp- and seafood-processing plants.
Ryan offered several recommendations for improving worker rights in Bangladesh:
- National and global worker and human rights organizations must continue to press for real freedom of association in Bangladesh.
- The Bangladesh business community must recognize that its actions to repress workers have consequences, in terms of not only impoverishing its own workforce, but also injuring the industry’s reputation in the eyes of other governments and the Western brands upon which they depend for business.
- The Bangladesh government must live up to its obligation as a member of the International Labor Organization (ILO) to protect and promote fundamental worker rights and should face punitive action by the ILO Governing Body if it fails to do so.
“The Bangladesh government has choices about development policy and how to best bring its people out of poverty,” Ryan concluded. “The strikes, violence, and continuing worker dissatisfaction with the status quo demonstrate that the low-wage, low-rights model is not its best option—and U.S. government, ILO, and NGO pressure can help the government to change course and support its workers as they attempt to better their own lives.”
Ryan shared the podium with Robert Blake, Assistant Secretary, Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, U.S. Department of State; Eric Biel, Acting Associate Deputy Undersecretary, Bureau of International Labor Affairs, U.S. Department of Labor; and John Sifton, Asia Advocacy Director, Human Rights Watch. The commission is named in honor of the late Rep. Thomas Peter Lantos (D-CA), who co-founded and co-chaired its predecessor, the Human Rights Caucus. Lantos was the only Holocaust survivor to ever serve in the U.S. Congress, from 1980 until his death in 2008.
Solidarity Center staff joined family and colleagues of Aminul Islam at a press conference last week to call for justice in Aminul’s murder. Aminul, a union organizer and president of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers’ Federation (BGIWF)’s local committee in the Savar and Ashulia areas of Dhaka,
Aminul, a longtime friend of the Solidarity Center, was a well-respected labor leader among workers at Savar- and Ashulia-area garment factories and export processing zones. Although he was not a national figure in Bangladesh’s labor movement, his death has shocked human and worker rights champions all over the world. During a town meeting in Dhaka, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called for an independent investigation into his murder. U.S. Ambassador Dan Mozena warned garment manufacturers that Bangladesh’s economic well-being hinges on ensuring worker rights.
The group of friends and colleagues, including the Solidarity Center and BGIWF, has formed the Committee for Justice for Aminul Islam (CJAI). At the press conference, held June 7 in Dhaka, CJAI called on the government of Bangladesh to conduct a comprehensive and impartial investigation into Aminul’s death and to prosecute those responsible regardless of their position and status. As long as Aminul’s case is not resolved, said CJAI, other union leaders risk facing the same fate, and Bangladesh’s garment export industry is in jeopardy.
Although the government of Bangladesh has pledged its full cooperation and law enforcement agencies are investigating the murder “with utmost sincerity,” there has been “no visible or measurable progress” in the nearly two months since Aminul was found dead, CJAI reported. CJAI added that it would continue to focus on the ongoing investigation and would provide regular updates.
Participants at the press conference expressed their solidarity by signing a petition, to be sent to the government of Bangladesh. CJAI urged participants to attend update events and asked for donations to support both the work of CJAI in the pursuit of justice and the welfare of Aminul’s family.
U.S. Ambassador to Bangladesh Dan Mozena warned garment industry leaders in Dhaka that recent developments in the ready-made garment industry, including the unsolved murder of union activist Aminul Islam, could coalesce into “a perfect storm that could threaten the Bangladesh brand” in the United States.
“Although this murder has elicited little attention or interest in Bangladesh, that is not the case in the United States, where worker rights supporters have seized on this issue, highlighting it as a major escalation in the erosion of worker rights in Bangladesh,” Mozena told executives of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers Export Association at a meeting on Wednesday. His remarks came only weeks after a town meeting in Dhaka at which Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton fielded a question about the murder of Islam, a longtime friend of the Solidarity Center.
Mozena also cited other concerns by major U.S. brands that could have a negative impact on the garment industry. He described how the CEO of one of Bangladesh’s major buyers had called him at midnight to express concern about critical reports on such issues as the recent spate of fires in garment factories. The fires result from lack of labor organization, he said the CEO told him, as union workers do not accept dangerous health and safety conditions in the workplace.
“Bangladeshi activists who monitor labor in the RMG sector tell me that workers are becoming increasingly restive,” Mozena continued, “due mainly to the growing failure of wages to keep up with the rising cost of living and the increasing vulnerability labor leaders feel as a result of the murder of Aminul Islam and harassment of other labor activists.”
Mozena stressed that the BGMEA had the power to overcome these hazards and make Bangladesh the next “Asian tiger.” But he made it clear that failing to address them presented a potential threat to Bangladesh’s economic well-being.
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During a “Townterview” this week with young Bangladeshi leaders at the International School in Dhaka, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton drew applause in fielding a question about repression of worker rights and the murder of union activist Aminul Islam, a longtime friend and colleague of the Solidarity Center.
Aleya Akter, secretary general of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation (BGIWF), asked, through an interpreter: “We work with worker rights. And there we face all kinds of obstructions with the police, goons, thugs, and false allegations in court. And, in fact, one of our leaders, Aminul Islam, was very brutally murdered. With such conditions, how can we work with the cause of worker rights?”
Clinton responded, touching on issues of impunity, the history of worker rights in the United States and developing countries, and employers’ and governments’ responsibilities to support the rights of working people.
“First let me say that I spoke out strongly to point [out] that there needed to be an independent investigation into the murder of Mr. Islam, because certainly his family and his colleagues deserve answers about what happened to him,” said Clinton. “So on that particular case, this is a real test for the government and for the society to make sure you don’t say that anyone can have impunity. That’s a key issue for the rule of law.
“Secondly,” she continued, “on your larger question, the history of labor rights and labor unions in any developing society is always difficult. There are strong forces that oppose workers being organized. We have this in my own country. You go back to the 19th and the early 20th century when labor unions were just getting started, there were goons, there were thugs, there were killings, there were riots, there were terrible conditions. We passed laws at the beginning of the 20th century against child labor, against too many hours for people to work, but that took time. It took time to develop a sense of political will to address those issues. So you are beginning that, and it’s a very important struggle. I think in today’s world, everything is accelerated because everything is known. There are no secret issues that can’t be exposed. There are exposés about factories from China to Latin America. So you are doing very important work. Do not be discouraged or intimidated. But you deserve to have the support of your government and your society.
“The third point I would make is that we have worked from Colombia to Cambodia with the owners of factories and other enterprises to help them understand how they can continue to make a very good profit while treating their workers right. And in fact, we have spent a lot of time trying to help owners of businesses understand how to do that. And it’s worked. And we have people who are quite experts in that.
Clinton concluded her response, saying: “Workers deserve to have their labor respected and fairly paid for. Factory owners deserve to have what they pay for, which is an honest day’s work for the wages that they pay. So there is a way to accommodate those interests, and we’ve seen it, and we can continue to work with you to try to achieve it.”
Solidarity Center Mourns Death of Aminul Islam. April 16, 2012—The Solidarity Center is appalled at the murder of Aminul Islam, a longtime friend and colleague. Islam, 39, was a plant-level union leader at an export processing zone (EPZ) in Bangladesh, an organizer for the Bangladesh Center for Workers’ Solidarity (BCWS), and president of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation’s (BGIWF) local committee in the Savar and Ashulia areas of Dhaka. He left behind a wife and three children.