Bangladeshi union leader murdered

The family and colleagues of a Bangladeshi union leader and organizer whose body was found last week along a roadside not far from the country’s capital Dhaka, are saying that he was murdered because of his labor rights work.  Aminul Islam, whose body showed signs of torture, was working on a campaign to organize workers of a company that manufactures ready-to-wear apparel for US clothing companies.  He also had been active in a campaign to raise workers’ minimum wage.

Islam was president of the Savar and Ashulu units of he Bangladeshi Garment and Industrial Federation and a leader of Bangladeshi Center for Workers’ Solidarity. He disappeared on Wednesday, April 4 after leaving home to meet a worker who had called earlier asking for his help.

Islam’s family has accused the police of torturing and killing him. “We found several injury marks from waist to his foot,” said Rafiqul Islam, Aminul’s brother to the Daily Star. “His toes and his ankles were smashed. It’s quite clear that he died of severe torture. Ordinary people cannot beat a man this way; it must be law enforcers.”

Kalpona Akter, founder of the Center for Workers’ Solidarity (CWS), accused national intelligence agencies and the garment factory owners trade association of conspiring to kill Islam.

Islam and the Workers’ Solidarity Center have had previous run-ins with the police. In March, Islam was arrested a few days before a big anti-government demonstration that was planned for March 12 by opposition political parties.

Islam was also arrested in June 2010 by members of the National Intelligence Services during a campaign to raise the Bangladeshi minimum wage. Islam said that after the arrest he was tortured and that his torturers demanded that he sign a letter accusing Kalpona Akter and Babul Akter, CWS’s director, of instigating worker unrest.

He escaped and went into hiding, but in August 2010 he was arrested again along with the Akters. The arrests came several weeks after garment workers went on strike to protest a new government minimum wage law that the workers said set the minimum wage too low. Protests against the law turned violent after police tried to break up worker demonstrations.

According to Sweatfree Communities, an international labor organization fighting sweatshop conditions, “The arrest(s )(were) the culmination of a several month-long government campaign to shut down the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, and part of a larger effort to quell worker resistance to abysmal working conditions and abominably low wages.”

International pressure resulted in the release of the Akters and Islam.

Despite the repression CWS continued to help garment workers organize for better pay and working conditions. Most recently CWS helped ABC News find and interview garment workers for a news segment that appeared on ABC’s Nightline about a garment factory fire that killed 29 workers in December 2010.

After the segment was broadcast, PVH, an American company that owns clothing brands such as Van Huesen, Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, and others, announced that it was committing $1 million to help improve safety at garment factories like the one where the fire broke out.

Islam was also helping 8,000 workers for the Shanta Group, a Dhaka-based company that makes ready-to-wear garments for such US companies as Tommy Hilfiger, Nike, and Ralph Lauren, organize a union to improve wages and working conditions.

According to the International Labor Rights Forum, on the day of Islam’s disappearance, he had left the CWS office in Savar about 13 miles northwest of Dhaka to attend evening prayers. While there he noticed a police van nearby. Thinking that he and other CWS staffers might be arrested, we called the CWS office and told staff to close the office early and go home.

After the call, he went home. That evening, he received a call from someone seeking his help. The caller said that the matter was urgent and that he needed to see Islam right away. Islam left home, and his wife and children never saw him again.

The next day, Thursday, police found a body that had been dumped alongside a road near the police station in Ghatail about 60 miles north of Dhaka. They quickly buried it.

On Saturday, Islam’s family saw a newspater picture of the body and went to reclaim it. On Monday, April 9, police exhumed the body, and the family identified it as Islam’s.

“All indications are that Aminul Islam was murdered because of his labor rights work,” said Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium. “This depraved act signals the deterioration of an already grim labor rights situation in Bangladesh, which is now the fourth largest exporter of apparel to the U.S.”

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