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NGOs Call for Action After Killing of Bangladesh Union Activist

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Human Rights Watch and global workers’ rights organizations have intensified a call for action after the June killing of Bangladeshi union activist Shahidul Islam, urging the government to thoroughly investigate the death.

Islam, 45, a longtime Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation labor organizer, was beaten to death in Gazipur, a major garment industry hub on the outskirts of Dhaka. At the time, he was trying to intervene on behalf of workers in a factory dispute over unpaid wages. Colleagues allege he was killed by factory-hired goons.

“The motive was to prevent him from speaking on behalf of workers so that the factory management could get rid of him and not pay the workers,” union president Kalpona Akter told VOA.

Akter filed a police complaint. The Industrial Police Unit is currently investigating the case and has made a few arrests but has yet to file any charges.

An officer who is investigating the incident would not comment when contacted by VOA in early September, saying the case was still “being investigated.”

Akter said Islam was a target of threats and assaults by factory owners and law enforcement authorities in the past because of his labor rights work.

The Bangladesh government has a history of cracking down on trade union activists in the garment industry, and putting them behind bars, a move that has been criticized by human rights groups.

“Bangladesh authorities should ensure that an independent and thorough investigation is conducted to hold accountable all those involved in directing, planning, and executing the attack,” Human Rights Watch said in a September 14 statement.

Activists from Clean Clothes Campaign, a Netherlands-based workers’ rights organization, protested in Amsterdam last month at a Bangladesh garment industry exhibition to urge the Bangladeshi government, the employers’ association, and brands sourcing from Bangladesh to take immediate action regarding Islam’s killing.

Activists also demanded safeguards for the right to organize, and a new minimum wage in line with workers’ demands in Bangladesh.

Difficulties organizing

Labor activists say Bangladeshi factory owners block workers from forming unions, despite laws that in theory allow workers to organize.

Bangladeshi law requires at least 20% of a factory’s workforce in a factory to sign a petition if they want to form a union. However, union organizer Dolly Akhtar in Gazipur, told VOA that once signature collection starts, “the factory management finds out pretty soon, and they try everything in their power to foil the attempt to form a union in their factory.”

Factory owners commonly threaten workers and organizers with dismissal and blacklisting if they attempt to unionize, Akhtar said.

“I’ve received countless written and verbal threats for trying to organize workers and demand due payments, severances and better working conditions,” she said. “The factory authorities often use the thugs and goons, local political leaders to intimidate me. They have money and the means to make anyone dance to their tune. They filed bogus cases against me, and local goons stopped me on the road to threaten me at night when I come back home. Because I am a woman they think I’ll get scared easily,” Akhtar said.

Additionally, government bureaucracy and red tape remain significant obstacles to union formation. The law requires a lengthy and complex registration process, which can drag on for months or years.

As a result, only a small percentage of garment workers in Bangladesh, about 7%, are union members, according to a 2020 Cornell University report.

Workers’ rights groups have been advocating reforms to give workers more power and protect union organizers for a long time.

“It’s crucial to prioritize the safety of these dedicated organizers because they are the backbone of the labor movement. Their safety ensures the continued empowerment of workers and the protection of their rights. Without secure and protected organizers, the struggle for fair labor practices and workers’ rights would be significantly hampered,” said Sarwer Hossain, a grassroots union organizer in Savar of Bangladesh Textile and Garment Workers League.

Christie Miedema of Clean Clothes Campaign called on international brands to ensure that the factories they use follow ethical labor standards.

“It is of utmost importance that the government, factories and brands create an enabling environment for independent organizing – lowering hurdles for independent unions to register, allowing access to workers to independent union organizers, and for brands to clearly signal to factories that they value freedom to organize and to stop the downward price pressure,” Miedema told VOA through an email.

VOA contacted Bangladesh’s Ministry of Labor and Employment and its Department of Labor but was unable to obtain a comment.