Fighting for Bangladesh Labor, and Ending Up in
By JIM YARDLEY
New York Times
September 10, 2012
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
"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
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
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
He has not been seen or located since the day Mr. Islam
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.
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