April 30, 2013The Most Hated Bangladeshi, Toppled From a Shady Empire
By JIM YARDLEY
SAVAR, Bangladesh — Barely 20 miles from the national capital, this gritty suburb is now a dusty, chaotic industrial center littered with factories that produce clothes for leading Western brands. Building codes are often unenforced, regulatory oversight is flimsy and the men wielding power often travel with armed guards.
And perhaps no one wielded power more brazenly than Sohel Rana. He traveled by motorcycle, as untouchable as a mafia don, trailed by his own biker gang. Local officials and the Bangladeshi news media say he was involved in illegal drugs and guns, but he also had a building, Rana Plaza, that housed five factories.
Upstairs, workers earned as little as $40 a month making clothes for retailers like J. C. Penney. Downstairs, Mr. Rana hosted local politicians, playing pool, drinking and, the officials say, indulging in drugs.
Now Mr. Rana, 35, is under arrest, the most reviled man in Bangladesh after the horrific collapse of Rana Plaza last week left nearly 400 people dead, with many others still missing. On Tuesday, a top Bangladeshi court seized his assets, as the public bayed for his execution, especially as it appears that the tragedy could have been averted if the frantic warnings of an engineer who examined the building the day before had been heeded.
But if Mr. Rana has been vilified, he is partly a creation of the garment era in Bangladesh, during which global businesses have arrived in search of cheap labor to keep profits high and costs low. Directly or indirectly, international brands are now sometimes interlinked with men like Mr. Rana, and placed at risk by them.
Global apparel companies often depict their international supply chains as tightly scrutinized systems to ensure that clothing sold to American buyers is produced in safe, monitored factories. Yet their inspectors usually check safety factors and working conditions, but not the soundness of the buildings themselves, and the companies often have little control over the subcontractors who do much of the work.
Criminality and politics have long intersected in Bangladesh, especially at the local level. But the garment industry has introduced what had mostly been the missing element: money. Savar land values soared as new factories hurriedly opened to meet the new Western demand.
To build Rana Plaza, Mr. Rana and his father bullied adjacent landowners, the landowners themselves say, and ultimately took their property by force. His political allies gave him a construction permit, despite his dubious claims of title to the land, and a second permit later to add upper floors that may have destabilized the building.
Mr. Rana existed largely above scrutiny. Many local people say his political clout was such that not even the police dared to confront him. Television stations reported the cracks in the building the night before it collapsed, but no local authority prevented Mr. Rana from opening the building the next morning.
“Money is his power,” said Ashraf Uddin Khan, a former mayor of Savar, who accused Mr. Rana of being deeply involved in the drug trade. “Illegal money.”
Before Rana Plaza collapsed, Bangladesh was already in turmoil, as opposition political parties were staging nationwide strikes, known as hartals, that paralyzed the country and placed huge pressure on factory owners to meet deadlines. Weeks earlier, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association warned that the hartals had cost Bangladesh as much as $500 million in business.
Hartals were part of Mr. Rana’s résumé. He held what appeared to be an innocuous position as secretary of the local student wing for the Awami League, the country’s majority political party. But that position translated into influence and helped him mobilize people. He developed a following that local people say he used as political muscle, sometimes to enforce strikes, sometimes to defy them.
“He had a criminal gang,” said Mohammed Khorshed Alam, an elected councilman in Savar and a member of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party. He said Mr. Rana and his men carried weapons and were part of a network involved in the local drug trade.
Politics are rough in Savar. Mr. Alam walks through the city with an entourage of eight men, including a bodyguard with a sawed-off shotgun. Local officials say drug sales are widespread, though the city’s police chief says he has stamped out the problem. One of the busiest drug dens, he said, used to exist behind Rana Plaza.
Land helped create Mr. Rana’s power. His father had been a poor peasant who sold his plot in a village and bought a small parcel in Savar. As prices began to rise, the father sold a portion of that land and used his profits to start a small factory making mustard oil. He also became involved in politics with the Bangladesh Nationalist Party, then in power, and slowly grew richer.
By 2000, land prices were rising, and Mr. Rana was helping his father. They could see other hurriedly constructed buildings rising in Savar, and they decided to build Rana Plaza — except they did not have clear title to all the land.
Rabindranath Sarkar, who had bought land in partnership with Mr. Rana’s father, said the family sent thugs to seize part of his share of the land and then retaliated when he filed a complaint with the local police.
“Rana chased me through Savar with weapons,” he said. “The police wouldn’t even dare to protect me. The police were always scared of them.”
Another adjacent family said Mr. Rana sent representatives to try to persuade them to sell a plot, including a small pond, beside Mr. Rana’s land. By 2005, a year before construction started on Rana Plaza, the family said Mr. Rana simply falsified a land deed to take possession of the pond.
Bangladesh initially sought to attract foreign investment by creating special Export Processing Zones, which had higher quality buildings and tighter regulations. But as demand from foreign buyers rose, factories began sprouting across the country, including quickly built structures to accommodate the small operators who did subcontract work on tight margins.
By 2011, Mr. Rana had rented out the existing five floors and gotten a permit from the local mayor, a political ally, to build additional floors. Mr. Khan, the former mayor, said this practice created serious risks, since officials were handing out permits, often for bribes, without insisting on the necessary safeguards.
“For the garment industry, Savar grew quickly, and in an unplanned manner,” he said. “There are so many buildings like Rana Plaza in Savar.”
Mr. Rana found factory owners to rent his new upper floors and appeared to be gaining in influence. Then on April 23, a problem arose. Workers on the third floor were stitching clothing when they were startled by a noise that sounded like an explosion. Cracks had appeared in the building. Workers rushed outside in terror.
By late morning, Mr. Rana’s representatives had brought in Abdur Razzaque Khan, an engineer. Taken to the third floor, Mr. Khan examined three support pillars, and became horrified at the cracks he found.
“I became scared,” Mr. Khan said. “It was not safe to stay inside this building.”
He rushed downstairs and told one of Mr. Rana’s administrators that the building needed to be closed immediately. But Mr. Rana was apparently not impressed; he was holding court with about a dozen local journalists.
“This is not a crack,” he said, according to Shamim Hossain, a local newspaper reporter. “The plaster on the wall is broken, nothing more. It is not a problem.”
But it was. The next morning, Rana Plaza collapsed. Mr. Rana managed to escape from his basement office, but was eventually discovered hiding near the Indian border. He was flown by helicopter to Dhaka and thrust before the news media, looking dazed and disheveled.
Neither Mr. Rana nor a representative was available for comment. He has previously said it was the factory owners who insisted on opening for business the day of the collapse, and several of the owners have been arrested, as was Mr. Rana’s father.
Even now, many people in Savar remained unconvinced that Mr. Rana will be punished, or that his style of business will be cleaned up. “Rana is not the only one,” said Mr. Sarkar, the man whose land was taken. “Now, we have so many Ranas.”
Julfikar Ali Manik contributed reporting.
***********Bangladesh workers protest as building collapse death toll passes 400
Thousands take part in May Day march in Dhaka demanding better safety at work and death penalty for Rana Plaza owner
Staff and agencies
guardian.co.uk, Wednesday 1 May 2013 10.10 BST
Link to video: Dhaka May Day protests demand justice for factory collapse fatalitieshttp://www.guardian.co.uk/world/video/2013/may/01/dhaka-may-day-protests-factory-collapse-video
Thousands of workers have marched through central Dhaka, Bangladesh, to demand better safety at work and the death penalty for the owner of a garment factory building that collapsed last week in the country's worst industrial disaster
The May Day protests came as officials confirmed the death toll from the collapse of the Rana Plaza complex had risen above 400. More than 2,500 were injured.
A procession of workers on foot, in pickup trucks and on motorcycles wound its way through Bangladesh's capital, waving the national flag and banners, beating drums and chanting "direct action!" and "death penalty!" on Wednesday.
From a loudspeaker on the back of a truck, a participant spoke for the group: "My brother has died. My sister has died. Their blood will not be valueless."
May Day protests, customarily an opportunity for workers in Bangladesh to vent their grievances, have taken on a poignant significance this year following the 24 April disaster.
Five garment factories were housed in the illegally constructed, eight-storey Rana Plaza that collapsed in Savar, a Dhaka suburb. Five months after a fire killed 112 people at another clothing factory, the collapse again highlighted safety problems in the country's $20bn (£13bn) a year garment industry, which supplies retailers around the world.
The owner of the building, Mohammed Sohel Rana, is under arrest. He is expected to be charged with negligence, illegal construction and forcing workers to join work, which is punishable by a maximum of seven years in jail. Authorities have not said whether more serious crimes will be added.
Strong concern over labour conditions in Bangladesh were voiced on Tuesday by the European Union, which said it was considering action to encourage improvements, including the use of its trade preference system. The EU suggested it would look at Bangladesh's preferential trade access to the European market in considering taking action to encourage better safety standards and labour conditions.
In Dhaka on Wednesday, workers demanded capital punishment for Rana, 38, a small-time political operative with the ruling Awami League party.
"I want the death penalty for the owner of the building. We want regular salaries, raises and absolutely we want better safety in our factories," said Mongidul Islam Rana, an 18-year-old garment factory worker.
Bangladesh's high court has ordered the government to confiscate Mohammed Sohel Rana's property and to freeze the assets of the owners of the factories in Rana Plaza so the money can be used to pay the salaries of their workers.
Rana had permission to build five stories but added three more floors illegally. When huge cracks appeared in the building a day before its collapse, police ordered an evacuation, but Rana told tenants that it was safe and they should go back in. The next day, a bank and some shops in the building refused to open but factory managers told their workers to go back in. A couple of hours later the building collapsed.
About 2,500 people escaped with injuries and rescue workers have recovered 395 bodies, but they believe many more are still buried on the ground level.
There is confusion over how many people remain missing.
Zillur Rahman Chowdhury, a Dhaka district administrator, said 149 people have been listed missing so far. A police official, Aminur Rahman, said officers have recorded up to 1,300 names as missing, but he cautioned that there may be many duplications. "We will now have to screen the names by computer to find the actual number," he said.
Rescuers estimate that the building turned into 600 tonnes of rubble, of which 350 tonnes has been removed.
Among the garment makers in the building were Phantom Apparels, Phantom Tac, Ether Tex, New Wave Style and New Wave Bottoms. Altogether, they produced several million shirts, trousers and other garments a year.
The New Wave companies, according to their website, make clothing for several major North American and European retailers. British retailer Primark has acknowledged it sold garments made in a factory in Rana Plaza and on Monday said it was providing emergency aid and would pay compensation to victims who worked for its supplier.
04/29/2013 06:40 PMEurope's Moral Quandary: The High Human Price of Cheap T-Shirts
By Hasnain Kazim, Nils Klawitter and Wieland Wagner
More than 3,000 people worked producing cheap t-shirts for European clothing chains in the highrise sweatshop that collapsed in Bangladesh last week. Hundreds died because the facility was lacking even the most basic safety standards.
Jamil can't stop thinking about the voices that came from the building: a mixture of pleading, praying, screaming and whimpering that rose from the mountain of ruins. "We heard people calling for help. We heard them begging for water and reciting prayers," the fireman recalls. "But we couldn't do anything for them. So many of them were simply beyond our reach." They helped those they could, bringing food and water to people trapped in accessible cavities within the giant mound of rubble that days before was still a functioning factory building.
The disaster, in which several thousand people were buried alive in the collapsed Rana Plaza building in Savar, a suburb of the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka, created sights and sounds that many will find hard to forget. Rezaul, for example, vividly remembers a woman with disheveled hair and a blood-encrusted face whose right leg was pinned down by a concrete pillar. "She begged me to saw off her leg and free her," he says. "I just happened to be there."
Rezaul works as a trash collector. When he heard about the disaster, he dropped his bicycle and trash bag, and ran to the site. "But I can't cut a person's leg off," he says. So he left the woman, and went in search of help -- in vain.
At least 3,000 people are believed to have been in the building on Rana Plaza at the time the building collapsed. More than 380 bodies had been recovered by Monday morning. Hundreds are still missing. And with every day that passes, the chances of finding survivors grows dimmer.
A Disaster of Historical Proportions
The deadly incident in Savar has already been called the worst industrial accident in the country's history. It serves as a reminder that nothing has changed when it comes to the inhumane conditions under which clothes are made in Bangladesh for European and American textile companies and clothing chains. And the same can be said about the culture of corruption that is rampant in Bangladesh, the abundance of illegally procured construction permits and the lax attitude factory owners take toward safety standards.
Workers had noticed deep cracks in the building's walls on Tuesday, the day before it caved in. They warned the police, the regulatory authorities and the Exporters Association of Bangladesh. It was common knowledge that the owner had three extra stories added to the previously five-story building without a permit. A ninth floor was under construction when the disaster occurred.
The building housed five garment factories as well as the offices of Brac Bank. The bank manager decided to close the branch on Wednesday because of safety concerns, thus saving his 11 employees' lives. "The branch manager called to say he thought it was too dangerous to go into the building," recalls spokesman Zeeshan Kingshuk Huq. However the operators of the garment factories ordered their workers -- mostly women -- to work their sewing machines as usual.
The subsequent disaster must have been like déjà vu for the people of Savar. In 2005 the town's Spectrum Sweater building collapsed, killing 64 people. That building too had illegally been raised from four floors to nine. And there too, factory workers produced goods sold by German retailers ranging from KarstadtQuelle to Steilmann.
Then as now, the owner of the building had friends in high places: Sayed Shahriyar's father-in-law had a seat in parliament. His wife was a high-court judge. Shahriyar therefore didn't spend long in prison before getting released again.
Mohammed Sohel Rana, the owner of the Rana Plaza building, went into hiding immediately after the disaster. "Wherever he may be, we will find him and bring him to justice," Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina promised last week. Police arrested Rana on the Indian border over the weekend. Rana is also thought to have good political connections. He's a member of the governing Awami League, and said to be extremely wealthy. He apparently owns two more buildings in Savar, as well as land.
The Complicity of European Companies
According to the Dhaka's Daily Star newspaper, 30-year-old Rana used his connections to obtain the land on which the Rana Plaza stands. The mayor issued the building permit himself, although he isn't officially allowed to, the article contends. Such backroom deals are common -- a well-known combination of corruption, irresponsibility and sloppiness that so often ends in tragedy. Except that in this case, it was encouraged by every European company that buys cheap T-shirts -- and therefore the disaster hits closer to home for Western consumers than they would like.
Rana had little cause to fear a crackdown by state authorities. After all, there are only 18 inspectors for the entire greater Dhaka region, which has thousands of garment factories. Worse still, according to a report by Human Rights Watch, factories are warned in advance about impending inspections.
As late as Tuesday evening, Rana claimed in a televised interview that structural engineers had checked the cracks in the walls and decided the plaster was merely crumbling. This was what prompted the operators of the garment factories to threaten to fire anyone who didn't turn up for work, say those connected with the incident.
Factories in Bangladesh have been under enormous pressure for weeks from their foreign customers because, until recently, strikes and protests had been disrupting much of the public sector. The political turmoil brought parts of the Bangladeshi economy, the world's second-largest textile exporter after China, to a complete standstill. Trucks loaded with goods destined for Europe and the US were stuck at the port of Chittagong, and many buyers started avoiding Bangladesh altogether. Others, like the British supermarket chain Tesco, publicly considered shifting production to Turkey or even Africa.
'Murder in the Name of Profit'
The Bangladeshi garment industry employs some 4 million people and generates almost 80 percent of the country's export revenues. Threats by customers are therefore not taken lightly. As a result, manufacturers were understandably desperate to make up for lost time. Roy Ramesch Chandra, the head of a trade union in Dhaka, calls the disaster "murder in the name of profit." He says, "Bangladeshi workers had to pay with their lives so that foreign consumers could buy cheap clothes."
The five garment factories operating in Rana Plaza also produced textiles for German retailers. One of these is Phantom Apparels Ltd, which supplied the German discount clothing chain NKD with T-shirts and blouses until 2012. Checks repeatedly uncovered problems with safety, as an NKD spokesman readily admits: Emergency exits were missing, insurance was inadequate or non-existent, maximum working hours were being exceeded. In 2012, NKD severed its ties with Phantom Apparels -- though not because of the poor working conditions or safety concerns, but "due to quality problems."
Another company that now lies buried in the rubble is Ether Tex, a low-cost manufacturer that produced clothing for the German market, including the discount chain Kik and a C&A importer. Until 2010, its customers included the Güldenpfennig company based in Quakenbrück, Germany, which has in the past supplied discount supermarket chain Aldi and the Otto mail-order firm.
Irish textile discount chain Primark also bought clothing from the Rana complex. The rising low-cost brand likes to suggest to its customers that its prices are so low they could afford to wear its clothes just once. At the opening of a store in Frankfurt, 70-year-old Primark Director Breege O'Donoghue proudly told reporters, "Look at me: Everything I'm wearing costs a total of 57 euros. It's all from Primark. Including what you can't see."
Primark's Web site even has a section on ethical trading. The company's suppliers, says the website, are held to the following code of conduct: "A safe and hygienic working environment shall be provided. Adequate steps shall be taken to prevent accidents (...) by minimizing, so far as is reasonably practicable, the causes of hazards inherent in the working environment." This is clearly intended to mollify customers.
Reaching for Better Standards
Gisela Burckhardt of the Clean Clothes Campaign considers such claims to be hypocritical. Together with trade unions in Dhaka, she has just finished drawing up a fire-protection and building safety agreement. The experience has shown her how difficult it is to commit companies to even the most basic of safety standards. "We took it to H&M, C&A and Kik, unfortunately without any success," she says. So far, the agreement has been signed only by US company PVH, which owns the Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger brands, although Tchibo has also indicated its willingness to take part.
Burckhardt says the clothing industry can only be improved sustainably if it pays decent wages and introduces a new kind of regulation involving independent, unannounced inspections of factories funded jointly by suppliers, contractors and trade unions. She also wants companies in Germany to be held accountable. "If German managers are made responsible for human rights abuses in their supply chain, it won't take them long to come to their senses," she says.
Back in Savar, the search for the missing and the dead continues at temperatures of around 35 degrees Celsius (95 degrees Fahrenheit) and amid an ever greater stench of decomposing flesh. Bodies pulled from the rubble are taken to a schoolyard for identification. People carrying pictures of their missing loved ones wander around dazed and angry. The photos depict mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, daughters and sons.
Together the crowd forms a multicolored pack of mourners that dares not leave the site of the disaster. Were it not for the look of anguish on their faces, the scene might almost resemble a Benetton ad.
Translated from the German by Jan Liebelt
September 9, 2012Fighting for Bangladesh Labor, and Ending Up in Pauper’s Grave
By JIM YARDLEY
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 organize workers?
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 overtones.
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 outside Dhaka.
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 charges.
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 phone.’ ”
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 recalled.
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 rally.
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 concerns.
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 the factory.
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 death.
“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 powerful interests.
“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 killings.
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 abducted.
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 intelligence agents.
He has not been seen or located since the day Mr. Islam disappeared.
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.
August 23, 2012Export Powerhouse Feels Pangs of Labor Strife
By JIM YARDLEY
ISHWARDI, Bangladesh — The air thickened with tear gas as police and paramilitary officers jogged into the Ishwardi Export Processing Zone firing rubber bullets and swinging cane poles. Panicked factory workers tried to flee. A seamstress crumpled to the ground, knocked unconscious by a shot in the head.
Dozens of people were bloodied and hospitalized. The officers were cracking down on protests at two garment factories inside this industrial area in western Bangladesh. But they were also protecting two ingredients of a manufacturing formula that has quietly made Bangladesh a leading apparel exporter to the United States and Europe: cheap labor and foreign investment.
Both were at stake on that March morning. Workers earning as little as $50 a month, less than the cost of one of the knit sweaters they stitched for European stores, were furious over a cut in wages. Their anger was directed at the Hong Kong and Chinese bosses of the two factories, turning a labor dispute into something potentially much larger.
“If any foreigner got injured or killed, it would damage the country’s image around the globe,” said a police supervisor, Akbar Hossein, who participated in the crackdown. “We all know the importance of these factories and this industry for Bangladesh.”
Bangladesh, once poor and irrelevant to the global economy, is now an export powerhouse, second only to China in global apparel exports, as factories churn out clothing for brands like Tommy Hilfiger, Gap, Calvin Klein and H&M. Global retailers like Target and Walmart now operate sourcing offices in Dhaka, the capital. Garments are critical to Bangladesh’s economy, accounting for 80 percent of manufacturing exports and more than three million jobs.
But with “Made in Bangladesh” labels now commonplace in American stores, Bangladesh’s manufacturing formula depends on its having the lowest labor costs in the world, with the minimum wage for garment workers set at roughly $37 a month. During the past two years, as workers have seen their meager earnings eroded by double-digit inflation, protests and violent clashes with the police have become increasingly common.
In response, Bangladeshi leaders have deployed the security tools of the state to keep factories humming. A high-level government committee monitors the garment sector and includes ranking officers from the military, the police and intelligence agencies. A new special police force patrols many industrial areas. Domestic intelligence agencies keep an eye on some labor organizers. One organizer who had been closely watched, Aminul Islam, was found tortured and killed in April in a case that is unsolved.
“The garment industry is No. 1 for exports and dollars for the country,” said Alonzo Suson, who runs the Solidarity Center in Dhaka, an A.F.L.-C.I.O.-affiliated labor rights group. “Any slowdown of that development is a national security issue.”
For the Obama administration, which has cultivated Bangladesh as a regional ally in southern Asia, labor unrest has become a matter of growing concern. In a May visit to Dhaka, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton raised labor issues and the Islam murder case. In June, Ambassador Dan W. Mozena warned Bangladeshi garment factory owners that any perception of a rollback on labor rights could scare off multinational brands and damage the garment industry. “These developments could coalesce into a perfect storm that could threaten the Bangladesh brand in America,” he said.
For global brands, which are forever chasing the cheapest labor costs from country to country, Bangladesh has been a hot spot, especially as wages have risen in China. McKinsey, the consulting giant, has called Bangladesh the “next China” and predicted that Bangladeshi garment exports, now about $18 billion a year, could triple by 2020.
But in late July, representatives from 12 major brands and retailers, alarmed by the rising labor unrest, prodded the Bangladeshi government to address wage demands, a suggestion rejected by the labor minister. “No reason to be worried,” Khandker Mosharraf Hossain, the minister, told reporters, noting that brands were not canceling orders.
Bangladesh was born in bloodshed during a 1971 war of independence from Pakistan and has since gyrated between military rule and fragile democracy. It has about 150 million people and is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. Derided by Henry A. Kissinger as the world’s “basket case,” Bangladesh has since made considerable progress on fronts like women’s literacy, juvenile and maternal mortality, per capita income, and life expectancy.
This upward arc is often credited to Bangladesh’s vibrant civil society, but the garment sector, in which about 80 percent of the workers are women, has also played a critical role, providing socially acceptable jobs to women in a conservative Muslim country. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, in lobbying the United States for favorable trade preferences, has argued that such policies would improve the lives of millions of poor women.
Bangladesh’s Home Ministry, in a written response to questions, said the government does not favor factory owners over workers but acts as a “referee/umpire” while maintaining an “investment friendly” environment for foreign and domestic investors.
Yet Ms. Hasina’s government has resisted expanding labor rights in a country where the owners of about 5,000 garment factories wield enormous influence. Factory owners are major political donors and have moved into news media, buying newspapers and television stations. In Parliament, roughly two-thirds of the members belong to the country’s three biggest business associations. At least 30 factory owners or their family members hold seats in Parliament, about 10 percent of the total.
“Politics and business is so enmeshed that one is kin to the other,” said Iftekharuzzaman, director of Transparency International Bangladesh.“There is a coalition between the sector and people in positions of power. The negotiating position of the workers is very, very limited.”
A Country Within a Country
Mohammad Helal Uddin joined Rosita Knitwear in May 2010 and was thrilled to have the job. Rosita was inside the new Ishwardi Export Processing Zone, not far from his home village, meaning he could live with his wife and two young daughters and not have to toil in the fields. “I feel I have a kind of dignity in this job,” he said.
Mr. Uddin, 28, worked in the knitting department and after six months was promoted, with a base salary of $55 a month. He soon began to notice irregularities. Workers were not getting promised annual raises, monthly attendance bonuses or the 17 paid holidays a year, beyond their usual one day off a week. Employees also said they worked four hours of overtime a day but were paid for only two.
Three decades ago, Bangladesh created a network of export zones to attract foreign investment with tax incentives and other benefits. Today, a large majority of Bangladesh’s garment factories lie outside these zones, but the zones are favored by foreign investors. Rosita and its sister factory, Megatex, both owned by the Hong Kong conglomerate South Ocean, were the first plants in the Ishwardi zone. Zones like Ishwardi operate like countries within a country. They are governed by a separate agency, the Bangladesh Export Processing Zones Authority, and by separate laws. By tradition, the authority has been run by a military officer, active duty or retired, and many factories have hired retired soldiers to oversee security.
For workers, wages were higher in the zones and conditions were better. But unions were initially banned, and workers had no right to organize until 2004 when Parliament, facing international pressure, approved worker associations at individual factories.
At the Rosita factory, workers elected a 15-member association last December, with Mr. Uddin as president. In January, a female employee complained that a Bangladeshi middle manager was pressuring her to have sex with one of the Chinese bosses. Enraged, workers demanded that the management address her complaint as well as the discrepancies over annual raises and earned leave. Six weeks of confrontation and chaos followed. In February, equipment in the Rosita factory was damaged during a rampage. Nearly 300 workers were accused of vandalism and fired, with their names posted on a blacklist at the gate of the Ishwardi zone. Mr. Uddin, who denied any wrongdoing, was fired and temporarily jailed.
When he tried to return to work on Feb. 20, Mr. Uddin said two black-clad officers hustled him into the tiny guardhouse. The officers were members of the Rapid Action Battalion, a government paramilitary force infamous for vigilante attacks known as “cross fire” killings. He said one of the officers ordered him to sign a resignation letter.
“I didn’t do anything wrong,” Mr. Uddin said he told them.
He said one of the officers pushed a gun against his shoulder. “If you don’t sign,” the officer told him, according to Mr. Uddin, “we will take you in the car and you will have to face the cross-fire.”
Mr. Uddin signed. Inside the factories, according to several workers, police and paramilitary officers walked through the workrooms, holding termination letters. The message was clear: work or leave.
By March, an American labor rights group, the Institute for Global Labor and Human Rights, was advocating for the workers. A South Ocean executive arrived at Ishwardi and promised to address worker complaints over wages and unpaid leave. Then on March 20, workers discovered that managers had cut the piece rate, a type of production bonus, meaning a loss of wages. Another standoff ensued as managers closed the factories. But when workers returned March 25, the wage cut had not been fully restored.
Hundreds of workers gathered outside the front door of the factory in an impromptu sit-down strike. Eight workers, interviewed in June, said all the managers had left the factories. A small contingent of police officers soon arrived and ordered everyone back to work. A seamstress said a police officer knocked her to the ground, beating her unconscious with a stick and shredding her clothes. “I kept asking them to stop,” said the seamstress, who asked not to be identified, fearing reprisals. “But even after I fell to the ground, they kept beating me and pulled my hair.”
Workers began throwing stones and chanting slogans against the police, who fled. Hours later, after officials in Dhaka were notified, officers from the Rapid Action Battalion as well as surrounding police stations arrived. Officer Hossein, the police supervisor, denied that the police were aggressors, saying officers were told that foreign managers were trapped inside the factories and that angry workers were vandalizing equipment. “They attacked the police,” Officer Hossein said. “They started the violence.”
Cellphone videos show police officers firing rubber bullets and pummeling workers with cane poles. “They treated workers as if they were not human beings,” one worker said.
The Power Equation
Bangladesh’s two major political parties, the governing Awami League and the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party, often seem engaged in a blood feud. Yet, many analysts say, the two parties agree on one thing: safeguarding the garment industry.
Three months after the clash at Ishwardi, tens of thousands of angry workers protested near Dhaka, demanding higher wages and crippling one of the country’s most important industrial zones for more than a week. Riot police officers dispersed the protesters with tear gas and rubber bullets, as scores of people were injured.
Following huge protests in 2010, Ms. Hasina raised the minimum wage for garment workers to $37 a month from about $20. But her government has resisted the renewed worker demands, even as executives at some leading brands have voiced support for adjusting wages and expressed concerns about labor unrest.
In June, top executives at the Swedish retailer H&M fretted that recurring labor protests were disrupting production and called on Bangladeshi factories to rectify the situation.
Major brands have been stung by bad publicity. This year, War on Want, a nonprofit group, found that workers in five factories making products for Nike, Puma and Adidas were paid less than the minimum wage and complained of workplace abuse and sexual harassment. In March, the parent company of the Tommy Hilfiger brand, PVH Corp., hurriedly donated $1 million toward a factory safety initiative as ABC News was preparing to broadcast a report on a fire that killed 29 workers in a Bangladeshi factory making clothes for Tommy Hilfiger.
“They want to see better standards and conditions in factories in Bangladesh,” said Julia K. Hughes, president of the United States Association of Importers of Textiles and Apparel, a trade group in Washington. “No company is arguing that wages should not rise in Bangladesh. They are not saying what the wage should be, but absolutely wages should go up.”
But many factory owners are skeptical that buyers are truly willing to pay higher prices. One owner, Shawkat Ali Bhuiyan, said he had stopped working with companies like Walmart and Target because his profit margin was almost nonexistent, while some Bangladeshi labor leaders blame the foreign brands for exploiting workers.
“We need to clean up the whole supply chain,” said Roy Ramesh Chandra, a powerful public sector union leader. “The brands need to fulfill their responsibility. The manufacturers need to fulfill their responsibility. And the government should comply with international obligations and respect international labor standards.”
Bangladesh has responded to international pressure in the past, sharply curtailing child labor and improving safety conditions in the 1990s. Now, though, the pressure points are the rights of workers to organize and collectively bargain for wages, issues that require action by a political system dominated by business interests, including the garment sector.
A. K. Azad, president of the Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry, played down the garment sector’s political clout. “We are not powerful,” he said, adding: “Power lies with the politicians. Power lies with the media.”
But many apparel tycoons have also gone into politics or begun media careers, purchasing newspapers or starting independent news channels. Mr. Azad, who owns one of the country’s biggest garment factories, also owns a Bengali-language newspaper and a television station. Several Western diplomats privately noted that news coverage often emphasizes the disruptions caused by protests above the concerns of workers.
At the Rosita and Megatex factories, South Ocean management hired a labor oversight firm, Verité, which detailed a host of problems, including humiliation of workers, summary firings and deliberate interference with the ability of workers to organize. New management teams are now running the factories, and Verité is helping put in place changes to increase wages and protect worker rights. “South Ocean have taken labor issues at the two factories extremely seriously and have taken swift actions to address those issues,” the company’s law firm, Winston & Strawn of Hong Kong, said in a statement.
Many of the workers involved in the March 25 clash are back on the job, despite their anger over how they have been treated. The seamstress who was knocked unconscious, her clothes shredded, said she had little choice, since she was the family’s sole breadwinner. “I am helpless,” she said. “We have to get food.”
South Ocean dropped charges against Mr. Uddin but the police are still pursuing separate charges. Meanwhile, officials at the export zone authority have blacklisted him from being hired at factories inside the zones. “We spoke up,” he said. “And we became criminals in the eyes of all authorities.”