Background

On June 3, 2010, the government of Bangladesh revoked the registration of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity (BCWS), one of the most respected non-governmental labor rights organizations in Bangladesh, ordering the confiscation of its property and the freezing of its bank account.  On June 16, a member of the BCWS staff was detained by National Security Intelligence officers who severely beat him and coerced him to sign a self-incriminating statement that he had incited garment workers to protest low wages and conduct illegal activities. Struggling to survive on $0.12 cents an hour – the lowest wage in the world – garment workers have long been demanding an increase to $0.35 cents per hour.

On July 30, when the government announced a new bare-survival minimum wage of only $0.21 cents per hour, workers waged protests on the streets and in the factories. The government responded with harsh rhetoric, blaming “provocateurs” and “terrorists” for inciting violence and unrest in the garment sector.  Charges have been filed against thousands of workers and many worker rights leaders have been hunted down and arrested.

BCWS leaders are being specifically targeted and accused of “fomenting unrest and agitation in the garment sector.”  Before arresting BCWS staff, several branches of security forces and police were searching for them, threatening their family members with beatings, harassing colleagues, and attempting various forms of deception in order to identify their place of hiding.  On August 13, at 2am, BCWS leaders, Kalpona Akter and Babul Akhter, were arrested and are currently being interrogated by the Detective Branch police. They are in serious danger of inhumane and degrading treatment at the hand of the authorities, as well as unfair trials on charges based on fabricated evidence.

Who is the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity?

Harassment, Beatings, and Extortions

What’s Walmart, JC Penny, and Sears Got to Do With It?

A New Wage, Tensions Mount, and Rhetoric Escalates

Repression Against BCWS Escalates

Chronology of Events


Who is the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity?

The Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity (BCWS) was founded in 2001 by three former child garment workers, including one former child worker, in order to promote worker rights and “establish a congenial atmosphere in the working place to increase productivity and contribute to the national economy.”[1]  A non-political non-governmental organization, BCWS is widely known for its credible research on labor rights compliance in the ready-made-garment factories and is committed to lawful means of redressing labor rights violations. BCWS maintains programs on labor rights awareness raising, leadership training, and conflict resolution. In addition, it provides mid-level management workshops, and runs a night school as well as a model daycare center for the children of garment workers.  Thanks to the work of BCWS many workers can enjoy their legal benefits, including maternity leave, and exercise their legal right to form and join workers’ associations.

Harassment, beatings, and extortions

The Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity (BCWS) has long had to contend with Bangladeshi government repression and surveillance as security forces tap their phone lines, monitor their emails, and sometimes search their offices. However, the current crackdown is harsher than before, threatening BCWS’s existence and placing staff and organizational leaders in serious physical danger.

On June 3, 2010, the NGO Affairs Bureau (NAB) of the government of Bangladesh cancelled the non-governmental organization (NGO) registration of BCWS, depriving it of its legal right to exist and operate.  At the same time, the Director General of NAB ordered government officials to seize the BCWS office and property and also instructed their bank manager to close their foreign donations bank account.  A daily newspaper reported that the government was to “prepare a list of cash foreign donations and the movable /immovable properties procured through foreign donations and take them under government control/possession.”[2]

On June 16, 2010, at 1:50 pm Bangladesh time, BCWS staff member Aminul Islam was detained at the offices of the Director of Labor as he was arriving for a scheduled meeting with the Chief Inspector of Factories to discuss worker unrest at garment factories owned by the president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA).  Also invited to the meeting were 30 garment workers, four other staff members of BCWS, and two representatives of the BGMEA.  The Chief Inspector of Factories reportedly had received special permission from the Labor Minister to hold the meeting despite the fact that the government no longer recognized BCWS as a legal entity.  As Aminul and the workers ascended the staircase to the Labor Director’s office, 30-35 National Security Intelligence (NSI) police arrived from a back entrance and detained Aminul along with three workers.

According to Aminul’s testimony  of June 18,[3] he managed to escape custody late at night the same day he was apprehended while being transported to another district.  Aminul reports that the NSI officers blindfolded and beat him, and threatened to kill him in an attempt to extort false testimony against BCWS.

“Why did you stop work at the garment factories?” NSI officers demanded of Aminul.  “If you just say Babul and Kalpona (leaders of BCWS) asked you to stop the work at the factory then we will set you free.”  When Aminul responded that BCWS never told workers to stop working and that Babul and Kalpona would “never support any illegal task or unlawful demand” he was beaten unconscious.  “They were hurting me at the joints of bones of my body. My arm, knee, joints, ball-joints were their targets.” Aminul’s testimony continues in excruciating detail, describing the beatings and threats to kill him and his wife, and orphaning his children, and covering up his killing in a so called “cross-fire” incident.

Aminul is exhausted as he ends his testimony. “Now I’m living in extreme anxiety,” he says. “I don’t even know what I should do now.  I can’t walk. I can’t even move because of the pain that I got from the beating. I can’t sleep. Nightmares of torture won’t let me sleep.”

What’s Walmart Got to Do With It?

The immediate cause of the cancellation of BCWS’s legal status may be related to BCWS supporting workers in their effort to form an independent trade union at one particular garment factory, Nassa Global Wear.  Nassa workers contacted BCWS in April, 2010, to receive support and help with conflict resolution.  The company owners are retired military officers who may have used their political influence to have BCWS’s non-governmental organization registration revoked.    While the NGO Affairs Bureau did not officially notify BCWS of the cancellation of its legal status until June 10, one week after the fact, Nassa managers knew about it earlier, and informed its workers on June 6—four days before BCWS received notification—that they expected BCWS to be closed down.

On June 19, three days after Aminul was detained and beaten by national security police, Nassa reportedly filed criminal charges against two members of the BCWS staff, including Aminul, and 57 workers, claiming they had beaten managers, vandalized the factory, and stolen property.   According to BCWS, the case was filed in the Ashulia Police Station with Babul Akhter and Aminul Islam the principal defendants. BCWS reported continued unrest at Nassa, including workers beaten by “local goons” both inside and outside the factory.  On July 22, BCWS wrote that an estimated 40 workers were injured at Nassa, breaking news on Bangladeshi television.

Nassa Global Wear produces for Walmart, Tesco, JC Penney, H&M, Sears, and Boy Scouts of America. BCWS says it has discussed the case with Walmart’s Bangladesh office.

Garment workers demand a wage for survival

The detention of Aminul and crackdown on BCWS also appears to be part of the government response to garment workers’ protests for a dignified wage, escalating since a minimum wage board to consider a new wage structure was formed in January, 2010.

According to a global survey released on June 19, 2010, Bangladesh garment workers are the world’s “most poorly paid” at about $24 or 1,662.50 taka per month.[4] The survey cites a Bangladesh Factory Inspection Department study that reveals far-reaching wage violations in the garment sector, including late payments, failure to pay overtime, and payments below the legal minimum wage.  According to industry leaders cited in the study, wages have been cut by 20-30% in recent months.  Manufacturers say they are squeezed by a slump in prices on the international market caused by the global economic crisis and by higher production costs due to an energy crisis and poor infrastructure.[5]

It is difficult to conceive just how little $24 per month is in Bangladesh.  According to a Bangladeshi non-governmental research organization, the minimum requirement for basic living in cities such as Dhaka and Chittagong is 1,805 calories per day. In 2006, when the $24 per month minimum wage was implemented, the group estimated the cost per month, per person, for food sufficient to meet this calorie intake to be $20.[6] Since 2006, the prices of almost all essential food items have doubled, and in some cases tripled.  Garment workers who earn the minimum wage today do not even earn enough to feed themselves, let alone pay for other basic necessities for themselves and their children.  Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has termed wages of garment workers “insufficient and inhuman.”[7]

Garment workers have long insisted on a minimum wage of 5,000 taka ($72) per month.  If they were to win this demand, they would still only be paid 35 cents per hour and subsist on just more than $2 per day, which might be a bare survival wage, no more. In recent months, thousands of garment workers demanding higher wages have protested on the streets. In June, about 700 garment factories in a major industrial hub near Dhaka were shut down for two days after protests by tens of thousands of workers.[8] On June 30, children caught up in clashes between protesting garment workers and police made international headline news, as shocking images showed police kicking children with heavy boots and beating them with batons.[9] In all, there were an estimated 72 incidents of labor unrest from January 1 to June 30, 2010, leaving at least 988 workers injured in clashes with police.[10]

A new wage announced, tensions mount, rhetoric escalates

On July 30, the minimum wage board announced its decision to raise the minimum monthly wage for Bangladesh’s 3.5 million garment workers to 3,000 taka ($43), effective November 1, 2010.  Of that amount, 2,000 taka would be the basic pay while 800 taka would be paid in house rent and 200 taka in health allowance. The apprentice level wage would increase to 2,500 taka ($36), up from the present 1,200 taka ($17). The worker representative on the board acknowledged that 3,000 taka “is not enough for a worker to maintain a family.”[11]

The announcement of the new minimum wage structure was a bitter disappointment to workers who had demanded the 5,000 taka ($72) monthly wage. Workers protested five straight days following the announcement.  The protests are described in virulent terms in Bangladeshi mainstream media.  The Daily Star, a main English language media source for Bangladeshi news, depicts workers as violent, angry, and out of control in both words and pictures.  Articles are filled with phrases such as, “angry workers rampaging through the streets,” “clashes between workers and police,” “vandalized private cars and motorcycles,” and “workers go beserk again.”

The government has reinforced the image of out-of-control angry and violent workers, adding to this the notion that the protesting workers are being manipulated, that they are but pliable tools of other interests that do not have the best interest of the nation or the industry at heart.  Workers’ genuine struggles thus diminished, the government has focused on containing and controlling “provocateurs,” “saboteurs” and even “terrorists” rather than developing solutions to real problems. The people who are causing the workers to riot, the government says, are “the enemy of nation,” and must be dealt with using an “iron hand” with the help of a new “industrial police” specifically for the ready-made-garments sector.

On July 31, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina warned that “the government will not tolerate any anarchy and destructive activities in the garment sector” and promised that “tough action would be taken against the people who are creating anarchic situation in the garment sector over the minimum wage.”  She added: “We will not spare anyone who is behind this. We will find out the provocateurs and try them.”[12] Pointing her finger at the opposition party, she asserted: “They (the opposition) are provoking the garment workers to create chaos with an evil design to gain political benefit out of it,” and added that “the party (BNP) patronized the terrorists and militants.”[13] Meanwhile, Shipping Minister Shajahan Khan alleged that “some non-governmental organizations instigate violence in the name of awareness programs.”[14]

Repression against BCWS escalates, its leaders in serious physical danger

In its June 3, 2010, non-governmental organization registration cancellation notification to BCWS, the government foreshadowed the coming virulent rhetoric, accusing BCWS of “inciting to create riotous situation and assisting in creating labor unrest in the readymade garment sector, and in anti-state and social activities.” An official government brief accuses Kalpona Akter and Babul Akhter of “fomenting unrest and agitation in the garments sector.”[15]

In its letter of appeal to the NGO Affairs Bureau, BCWS firmly denies all allegations of illegal actions and inciting unrest:

“Our NGO has never supported or instigated worker unrest, not at present or any time before. …  Our organization doesn’t help to run anti-state activities, doesn’t encourage worker unrest, and doesn’t engage in any activity that harms national issues and security. … There is no way to prove any above allegation against us. … From the beginning, our organization has been building up good relationships among workers and owners and we have so many examples of it. … BCWS is group neutral and has no political influence. Most of the people running this organization are female workers. …  The NGO Affair Bureau didn’t give us any chance to defend ourselves before it cancelled our registration, manufacturing fake claims without evidence.”[16]

On July 2, BCWS reported that their staff was scared but still coming to the office despite harassment from security police.  Because of the trouble their landlord increased rent by 60%. Aminul still had not returned home, but was finally able to see his wife and children. On July 22, BCWS reported that “our phone is still tapped, and we are being followed, getting many visits and phone calls from security intelligence.”

On July 31, we began receiving almost daily updates from BCWS, each report describing heightened tension and increasing pressure as the government sought scapegoats for the growing protests of garment workers.

Chronology of Events

August 22: The charges and the charged

Kalpona and Babul are still in custody.  Our best guess is that they will remain in custody until the cases filed under the Speedy Tribunal Act go to trial.

There appear to be a total of nine open cases against Kalpona, Babul, Aminul, eight of which are related to the unrest on July 30 in the wake of the government announcement of the new minimum wage structure.  One case was brought by Nassa management on June 19.

We have obtained details on six of the cases, as follows:

Case no. 48, filed at the Ashulia police station:
•    Date filed: June 19, 2010
•    Complainant: Md. Eusuf Majumdar, Assistant General Manager, NASSA Basic Complex.
•    Accused leaders: Babul and Aminul
•    Accusations: entering into the factory, assaulting the officers, vandalizing properties worth 900,000 taka, and stealing mother boards from 10 computerized bartek machines [apparel manufacturing machines]
•    Instigated by Nassa Group

Case no. 36, filed at the Tejgaon Industrial Area Police Station, under the Speedy Tribunal Act
•    Date filed: July 30, 2010
•    Complainant: Sub-Inspector, Syed Ifteqar Hossain
•    Accused leaders:  Kalpona, Babul, and nine others
•    Accusations: destroying properties of Nassa Group
•    Instigated by Nassa Group

Case no. 37, filed at the Tejgaon Industrial Area Police Station, under the Speedy Tribunal Act
•    Date filed: July 30, 2010
•    Complainant: Sub-Inspector, Md. Mainul Islam Pulok
•    Accused leaders: Kalpona, Babul, and nine others
•    Accusations: destroying properties of Rupom Dyeing and Printing Industries Ltd.

Case 38, filed at the Tejgaon Industrial Area Police Station
•    Date filed: July 30, 2010
•    Complainant: Sub-Inspector, Md. Nazrul Islam
•    Accused leaders: Kalpona, Babul, and ten others
•    Accusations: creating barricades on the road, destroying properties on the road, injuring the officers of the police, and causing damages to the properties of different factories.
•    Instigated by Nassa Group

Case no. 89, filed at the Gulshan police station
•    Date filed: July 30, 2010
•    Complainant: Md. Salim, General Secretary, Navana Tower Shopping Complex Shop Owners Society
•    Accused leaders: Kalpona, Babul, and seven others
•    Accusations: using explosives, destroying properties including vehicles on the road, and attacking shops in different markets

Case no. 88, filed at the Ashulia police station:
•    Date filed: July 31, 2010
•    Complainant: Sub-Inspector, Md. Abid Hossain Khan
•    Accused leaders: Babul and Aminul
•    Accusations: creating barricade on the road, destroying properties, and snatching pistol and wireless communication sets from police
•    Instigated by Envoy Group

For many of these cases, dozens of named worker and up to 3,000 un-named workers are also accused.  Kalpona, Babul, and Amirul are vulnerable under three additional cases: cases no. 30 and no. 31 filed at the Adabor Police Station and case no. 47 filed at the Ashulia Police Station.
Meanwhile, the battle over the minimum wages continues.  The Financial Express reports that more than 300 garment factory owners have filed objections before the Minimum Wages Board, asking to cut the salaries of workers in the new pay scale. Twenty-two labor organizations also filed objections, most of the urging higher wages for grades 2-7. This issue will not be finally resolved until the Board holds a meeting on the new objections and the government publishes a final gazette with the new pay scale.

August 15: More garment worker protests

Media report that about 50 people, including 20 policemen, were injured as 4,000 garment workers from one factory gathered on the highway and staged demonstrations demanding implementation of the newly announced wage structure from August, rather than November 1, and a reduction of their 12 hour working day to nine hours.[33]

August 14: Relentless questioning

A brief word from Kalpona: Kalpona and Babul are being held at the offices of the Detective Branch on Minto Road in Dhaka.  They have not been mistreated.  The questioning is relentless, she reports, but they are treated professionally.

The Detective Branch presented Kalpona and Babul to the Magistrate judge.  They were remanded four days for interrogation on two cases.  The best case scenario is that they will be able to post bail after four days of interrogation.  However, nothing is clear at this point.

In all, there are eight cases pending against Kalpona and Babul.  Three of those cases are filed under the Speedy Tribunal Act, which means a trial could be imminent, bail may be rejected, and Kalpona and Babul held in custody for the duration of trial.  In addition, the current questioning could lead to additional charges being filed.

August 13: Kalpona and Babul are arrested

Kalpona and Babul were arrested on Friday, August 13, at the start of Ramadan, a month of healing and purification. At 2am, under the cover of night, 20 uniformed and plainclothes police arrested Kalpona and Babul, rousing them from their sleep, and confiscating computers and paperwork belonging to BCWS. As of yet, neither BCWS nor the lawyer assisting them, has been able to locate them. By law, the police must bring Kalpona and Babul to the Magistrate judge by the end of the day. At the Magistrate, the police can ask for remand, which means that Kalpona and Babul can be interrogated for up to three days for each case against them under the watch of legal observers. According to earlier reports Kalpona is named in six cases and Babul in eight cases.  This means Kalpona could be held 18 days for interrogation and Babul for 24 days. Following the interrogation period they will have to appear before the Magistrate again.  The need for legal funds is extremely urgent at this time: donations to the legal struggle may be contributed here.

By evening the first online news reports of Kalpona and Babul’s arrest appear. The story is that six female workers, arrested on August 9, named Kalpona and Babul “as the two leaders who provoked them to resort to violence demanding Tk 5,000 as minimum wage.”  According to one media source, Kalpona and Babul were accused of instigating violence in Mohakhali, Gulshan, and the Tejgaon areas on July 30.  Other sources omitted mention of the violence in the Mohakhali areas, referring only to “rampaging workers” in Gulshan and Tejgaon. According to earlier media reports, the six workers are from the Floret Fashion Wear factory in the Tejgaon Industrial area and identified “two factory workers who prompted their fellows to vandalism.”[30] In addition to instigating violence against certain factories, Detective Branch police officials claimed that Kalpona and Babul took bribes from the owners in order to “settle the agitations.”  According to different media accounts, the arrests were supposed to have been made either at noon or in the morning on Friday, August 13 (in other words, in the bright daylight, not under the cover of night, at 2am).[31]

Here are some of the holes in this story:

  • The six workers apprehended on August 9 who are supposed to have identified Kalpona and Babul by name were earlier said to have identified two fellow workers at the Floret Fashion Wear factory in the Tejgaon Industrial area as instigators of violence.  Neither Kalpona nor Babul is a garment worker.
  • Accusations against Kalpona and Babul appear to predate any evidence obtained against them. As early as On July 31, nine days before the testimony of the six workers, The Daily Star reported that Kalpona and Babul had been “implicated” in the violence of the preceding day.[32] What was the evidence then?  Much earlier, in the June 3 non-governmental organization registration cancellation notification, the government accused BCWS of “inciting to create riotous situation and assisting in creating labor unrest in the readymade garment sector” without proffering any evidence.
  • There is evidence that the police has been attempting to manufacture evidence against Kalpona and Babul to fit the accusations.  First, we have Aminul’s testimony that he was tortured by National Security Intelligence officials to coerce him into signing a statement alleging Kalpona and Babul had incited garment worker unrest (see above: “Harassment, beatings, and extortions”).  Second, we have Kalpona’s report from August 3 that the Ashulia Police Station pressured a factory owner to accuse Kalpona, Babul, and Aminul of vandalism. There is every reason to be skeptical of the “evidence” provided by the six workers.
  • Finally, the idea that Kalpona and Babul would be able to deftly manipulate garment workers, first to rampage and then to quiet down once they received the bribe from the factory owners, turning workers on and off like light switches, defies common sense.  Who are the factory owners who are supposed to have paid off Kalpona and Babul?

August 10: How to create labor peace

Bangladeshi media reports that the European Union has identified labor and political unrest as the prime challenges to sustainable growth of Bangladesh’s apparel sector.  Newspapers pointedly note: “The EU countries are the major markets for Bangladesh apparels as 72 per cent of knitwear products go there.”[27] The public conversation on the apparel industry is now all about how to create labor peace, the low wages having receded to the background for the moment at least.  The government is publicly worried that the country’s image has been tarnished due to recent worker unrest.

At a roundtable on “strategies to minimize labor unrest in the RMG sector” held at the Dhaka Sheraton Hotel, Labor and Employment Minister, Khandaker Mosharraf Hossain, continued to deflect responsibility to “external forces,” claiming that some nongovernmental organizations were involved in the latest labor unrest in the readymade garment sector.  In the name of protecting human rights, they (some NGOs which he did not name) are violating human rights, he said.[28]

The Labor Minister was busy.  At a tripartite workshop organized by the International Labor Organization and the Labor Ministry and attended by representatives from the government, the factory owners, and workers, the minister also suggested that factory owners should welcome trade unions in their factories. “A congenial environment for discussion between the workers and owners cannot be created without the presence of a trade union,” he said. Labor representatives could “play an effective role to stop unrest in the sector.”[29]

Meanwhile, the Detective Branch of the police detained six female workers in connection with the July 30 unrest.  They were identified from footages and newspaper photos.

August 9: “Outsiders conspire to devastate the sector” and “a new game plan to vanish us forever”

The Rapid Action Battalion (RAB) chief, Hassan Mahmood Khandker, today reiterated the theory that worker unrest in the garment sector is part of an outside conspiracy to undermine the industry.”Outsiders conspire to devastate the sector,” he told reporters.  “Some of them have been arrested. RAB is after the others.”[23]

Meanwhile, a court granted the police one day to question the nine “criminals posing as workers” arrested by RAB on August 6 for attacks on the police, obstruction of government duty, and vandalism of RMG factories and looting.  The police had asked for five days to question them.[24]

Kalpona reports that a meeting today between BCWS and the NGO Affairs Bureau (NAB), held more than two months after the NAB cancelled BCWS’s non-governmental organization registration, was fruitless.  BCWS was represented by its President, Moli Akter, and International Affairs Secretary, Taslim Zahan.  Kalpona and Babul were unable to attend because of the risk of arrest. Saifur Hasan, Regional Director, represented the NAB.

Mr. Hasan reportedly proposed that BCWS submit a new application for NGO registration.  He would then “take care of everything.”  However, a condition of registration was that Kalpona and Babul both leave BCWS.

BCWS board and staff immediately rejected Mr. Hasan’s proposal. A new application for NGO registration would imply admission of the government’s allegations against BCWS as stated in NAB’s June 3, 2010, letter of deregistration, namely: “involvement in several wrongful acts, including inciting to create riotous situation and assisting in creating labor unrest in the readymade garment sector, and in anti-state and social activities,” which are “deemed as threat to national interests and security.”[25] BCWS maintains that their NGO registration should be restored on the basis of the review petition that they submitted to NAB on July 27, 2010, in which they reject the allegations against them.[26]

BCWS has also requested a two week postponement of their meeting with the Social Welfare Department regarding allegations that they are operating outside of the Dhaka District without permission from the department in violation of their bylaws (see August 8 update).  Referring to the draining allegations, requests, and threats of the two government bureaucracies—the NGO Affairs Bureau and the Social Welfare Department—an exhausted Kalpona reflects: “We don’t know but it seems that this is the new game plan of government and their allies to vanish us, BCWS, forever…”

August 8: Police admits torture

In a meeting yesterday between the Bangladeshi National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) and the Dhaka Metropolitan Police, the NHRC chairman sharply rebuked police for human rights violations by law-enforcement personnel and corruption within the force. The Daily Star reported: “cops try in vain to justify HR violation.”  The newspaper referred to police officials lamenting that “policemen themselves do not have human rights” so “how could they ensure human rights of others?”  Police reportedly said they are poorly paid and forced to work overtime without compensation and that is why they take bribes.  They also “admitted that police at times torture arrestees to extract information from them as they (police) do not have proper logistics for quizzing.”[22]

Meanwhile, Kalpona said she does not have “much of an update,” constant harassment becoming part of her taken-for-granted reality.  She “only has two things to say.”  First, that last night the Detective Branch, the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), and local police “raided my old house, my new house, and my sisters’ house, looking for me and male members of my family, including my brother and my brothers-in-law.”  They would torture them, Kalpona said, in order to identify her location and capture her.

Second, they found Mahidul and Shawpan at the CIPL factory.  They had been captured by the RAB, who handed them over to the Ashulia Police Station.  Management has hired a lawyer and posted bail for them.

There is a third update.  BCWS received a letter from the Social Welfare Department requesting them to appear for a hearing on August 10.  The department alleges that BCWS is working outside of the Dhaka district without Social Welfare Department permission in violation of BCWS bylaws.  If they do not show up for the hearing, the decision would be against them, the letter states.  “When we asked them why they haven’t told us this before,” Kalpona recounted, “they replied, ‘we know you are doing a good job and that BCWS and its staff is not involved with anything you’re accused of, but now we are getting a lot of  pressure from the top to hold the hearing and take action.”

August 7: Risk is high here

Kalpona reports:

“This morning 16 cops from RAB and local police surrounded my house again. They were there about four hours while my mom was alone at home. They demanded to know from our caretaker whether I or any male member my family was home.  He told them that except for my mom no one was home.  After asking those questions, they called somewhere, waited for another 30 minutes and then left, my mom told me.

“About 4pm this afternoon, another group of cops (two male and two female) went by my old living place, looking for me, my brother, and brother-in-laws. Some of my brother’s friends misdirected the cops and helped my brother-in-laws to escape. The cops said they were looking for us because they were also NGO workers and had an NGO matter to discuss with us.

“Our staff members, who are still working at our offices, tell us that security forces are visiting our offices, asking about us and where we are.  When they respond that they don’t know where we are, the security people threaten them. They have threatened two key members of our staff, Ms. Taslim Zahan, Program Coordinator, and Mr. Jahangir Alam, Accounts and Administration. They told them if they do not cooperate they would have the same problem very soon.”

August 6:  World Bank economist says the industry can absorb the wage increase, the High Court directs police not to torture, and elite forces alleges hand of “foreign powers” in destabilizing the garment sector

On August 6, Bangladeshi media reported that the near doubling of the minimum wage will not make the industry less competitive, according to a Dhaka-based World Bank economist.  In fact, it would barely affect the factories’ profit margins even if buyers refused to increase their price offers to factories.  Labor costs “typically constitute 1-3 per cent for a garment produced in the developing world,” said the economist, so doubling of wages would at the most “prompt only 1-3 percent increase in the garment products on the global retail market, which is achievable.”

While the extent of the impact on factories would depend on how major apparel brands and retailers respond (the economist mentioned JC Penney, H&M, Zara, Tesco, Carrefour, Gap, Metro, Marks & Spencer, Kohl’s, Levi Strauss and Tommy Hilfiger) the factories “may have the capacity to take a hit on profits.”  Furthermore, major competitors like Mexico, the Philippines, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, India and the Dominican Republic all have “relatively high labor costs.” As a result, “the required increase in retail prices due to the comparatively low pay increase in Bangladesh would be somewhat lower for the products produced here, and surely, buyers could afford to bear at least a part of the required increase.”[19]

In other news the same day, the High Court expressed concern about the wellbeing of labor leader Montu Ghosh, in police custody, directing police not to torture or humiliate him.  It also asked the government to form a medical team of specialist doctors to examine Mr. Ghosh’s health at least twice a day.[20]

But the main news of the day, prominent in newspapers and on television, was that the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), an anti-crime and anti-terrorism Bangladeshi elite force consisting of members of the Bangladesh Army, Navy, Air Force and Police, had arrested nine workers on charges of causing violence in the Mohakhali, Gulshan and Tejgaon areas on July 30. In the terms of RAB officials, these workers were “criminals posing as workers.” Parading them in front of television cameras, RAB claimed to have identified the nine from video footage, newspaper photographs and intelligence reports.  Apparently, these “workers/criminals” were linked, somehow, to “some neighboring countries [that are] trying to create unrest in the garment sector through workers movement,” perhaps through some 10 to 15 workers’ organizations that RAB claimed are being funded to instigate violence.[21]

Commenting on this new conspiracy theory, Kalpona said the RAB “had received very important information from the nine arrested workers regarding the supposed agitators” and that “RAB was now in the field trying to capture those people.”  We could be among them, she said. “Now we are sure the risk is going to be high and the situation could become even worse.”
“There is more bad news,” she added.  “Mahidul and Shawpan, two of the worker leaders who work for CIPL (a factory of the Epic Group) has been captured by security forces.  They could have been from the Rapid Action Battalion, the Detective Branch, the Special Branch, National Security Intelligence, the Directorate General of Forces Intelligences, or the CIEU, which has been recently specially formed for the ready-made-garments industry.   He was captured at 3am this morning from his house.

“Shawpan is the Vice Chairman. Mahidul is the Workers Participation Committee’s Secretary at CIPL.  Management has not filed any compliant against him or against any other workers in the factory. We are working with management to find him but we don’t know where he is and who has taken him. We are really worried now because we have been working with these factory workers for the last three years and with other Epic factory workers for many years. Maybe the government is playing some game here with us, trying to get Mahidul and Shawpan to make a statement against us.

“I should mention that the owner and workers in this factory have a very good relation. If we would rank factories here in Bangladesh then this factory would be number one.”

August 5: Police Raid

Kalpona reports:

“Yesterday morning, around 7am, a person came to my house at Uttara where I live with my mom, brother, and my youngest sister. The person told our care taker/guard that he is my relative and wanted to know whether or not I was at home and if he could meet me. While they were talking, my brother came out of the house but he didn’t recognize this person. Then our care taker understood that something was wrong and informed him that I wasn’t home and had gone out about an hour ago. Then the person left his cell number with the care taker and told him to call when I returned.

“In the evening I came to my house to collect something on my way to a safe place. The same person came to our house again a little later, but our care taker didn’t tell him I had just come home. We (me, my brother and Babul) then ran away.

“Later, I called the person who claimed to be my relative and said his name was Ferdouse. I called the following number, 01712 074 207, and asked him why he was looking for me. At first he didn’t answer me directly, but said he knew me from my old place.  I told him that this is all a lie and requested that he tell me which security department he is from.   Then he stared to threaten me. He said, “We want you in front of us.  We will keep you in our custody and will make your life hell.  You don’t know about us and about our power. Now we know where you and your family live and we know how to get you in our custody.

“Afterwards this person called our care taker, shouting at him, threatening him, and demanding to know why he gave me his cell number and why he didn’t tell him I was home.

“My mom told me that the police, the Detective Branch, surrounded my house over night and was looking for me, but they didn’t go inside the house or my flat.  Now my mom and youngest sister are at home and they are in extreme fear that those people can come again and torture them if they don’t find me there at home.”

Court cases filed against BCWS leaders

On August 5, the BCWS lawyer confirmed that eight cases have been filed against BCWS staff.  Babul is named in all eight cases, Kalpona in six cases, and Aminul in two cases.
•    Two cases against Babul, Aminul, and workers were filed in the Ashulia Police Station, including one by the Nassa management on June 19, and one by a police officer on July 31. The charges include beating police officers and stealing their arms. Some workers have been arrested.
•    One case against Babul, Kalpona, and workers was filed in the Gulshan Police Station on July 30 by the general secretary of the Navana Tower Shopping Complex, where Walmart’s office is located.
•    Three cases were filed against Babul, Kalpona, and workers on July 30 in the Tejgone Industrial Area Police Station by a police officer. Two of these cases have been filed under the “Speedy Tribunal Act” regulations.
•    Two cases were filed against Babul, Kalpona, and workers on July 30 in the Adabor Police Station, one by the security guard of Nasrin Garments factory, and one by a police officer.

Moving at night

Kalpona reports: “During the day we can stay at a safe location (up to now) but the problem is over night.  We have to move two or three times each night.  The security is still harassing our family and since yesterday they have started to harass other BCWS staff members, who are still coming to the office to work, in order to locate us.”

August 3: “We can be arrested at any moment”

A “terrified” Kalpona Akter reports:

“Today our lawyer informed us that there are six cases filed against us along with other leaders and among the six, five are under the “Speedy Tribunal Act” regulations. … You may know that Mr. Montu Ghosh was arrested last Friday night as he was accused in the same cases.  Today he was remanded for 11days.  Police are looking madly for me and Babul to arrest us, and if they could arrest us they would make our situation worse than for Mr. Ghosh.

“On Saturday, July 31, factory managers went to the Ashulia Police Station to file a case against the workers who vandalized their factory.  But the Ashulia Police Station suggested they should name me, Babul, and Aminul in the case. As we are not involved in that factory, the managers disagreed.  The Ashulia Police Station officer would not take the case without our names listed as perpetrators. But the manager refused to file the case against us. After that the police officer told them to wait and after a conversation with top level government officials, the Police Station took the case without naming us. So, it is clear that the government intends to blame us as much as they can.

“On July 31, August 1, and August 2, some people in civilian dress went to my house where I used to live (I have recently moved but didn’t give my address to the security people) and where my sisters and their family lives. Those people where looking for me, asking about me and my address (many questions) and they said they are from the Detective Branch and local police. When my sisters and their husbands said they don’t know where I am, they threatened them, saying, ‘When we start beating you then you will remember everything.’ Then they asked about my brother—Jashim Ahmed: he is also an activist and working for BCWS as a paralegal officer— and also about Babul and his family.

“When my sisters and their family denied everything those people said if they couldn’t find me they will go again to their house and will arrest my sisters and their husbands.

“On August 1, worker leaders in the Rampura area held a meeting at our Rampura office and discussed the new minimum wage structure and the cases that have been filed against us. During the meeting, Special Branch, National Security Intelligence, and Khilgone and Rapmpura Police Station officers were present. A lady who identified herself as Synthia Rahman and said she worked as a crime news reporter for the Daily Jugantor (a Bangla news paper) also attended the meeting.   She called me on the phone afterwards saying she recently joined the Jugantor, that she was impressed with our work, and would write a positive report about us.  She requested a meeting with me as soon as possible. After our conversation, she talked to our Accounts and Administration Officer, Mr. Jahangir, and asked for my address.   But he said he didn’t know where I live.  Later she sent me a text message and wanted to meet me soon and also called one of our worker leaders to ask when she could meet me. After that I called the Jugantor office, asking for this crime reporter, Ms. Synthia Rahman, but some Mr. Kollol who answered the phone at Jugantor informed me, after checking all the departments, that there is “no crime or reporter named Synthia Rahman.” This is the cell phone number of that lady: 01712 119 5111.

“On the same day another person called me, identifying himself as Mr. Bashir, a reporter with “Daily Bhorer Kagoj.” He asked what we think about the new minimum wage, what information we are giving to the workers, and how the workers are reacting.  I made our position clear to him and he requested I keep in touch with him if there is any news.  Then last night I called “Daily Bhorer Kagoj” to find this person. They said they don’t have a reporter named Bashir, and that the number he used when calling me is not their number. The number he called me from is 933-9085.  His cell number is 01715-387-500. Today when I called his land line I found that it goes to a National Security Intelligence office number!

“Yesterday someone called my brother-in-law’s (his name is Jakir Hossain Babu) cell phone and asked for detailed information about me. The person who called said that he was calling from the Grameen Phone Center and that they need information regarding his SIM card as he is the subscriber of Grameen Phone. Jakir checked the number that was calling and saw that it was not a Grameen number, and said that I was not home but he would be pleased to provide details later. Then the person said, “Ok, I’ll call you after a while because we need more information about other family members.” After that Jakir switched off his cell phone and called me from another number and gave me the number that had called him.  I called that number and found it is the number of the Dhaka Metropolitan Police. The number is 712-4001. Later this same number called my mother, brother, and Babul’s wife.

“Yesterday at noon a person called me from the number, 01552-480-104, asking where I was. First he said that he was a garment worker and that he has some problems and wants to meet me. When I asked him which garment factory employs him and the area he works in, he couldn’t answer me.  Suddenly he shouted at me: “How long can you and your colleague hide from us?” Then he just cut the line and switched off.

“In addition to all this, we are getting calls from the Special Branch, National Security Intelligence, local police stations, and other security intelligence officers.  They also visit our office many times every day.

“Today, just an hour ago, Dokhinkhan Police Station officers and Detective Branch police raided my two sisters’ houses, looking for me, Babul and my brother. They were very lucky that they managed to hide and still they are under cover. My sisters are unsafe and insecure at their house with their little kids. I, Babul, my other colleagues, and our family members are passing every minute in extreme anxiety. We can be arrested any moment…”

August 1: Labor leaders agree to new minimum wage

On August 1, we received reports that the majority of unions had agreed to the new minimum wage and “pledged an end to violence” after a meeting with ministers, lawmakers, chamber leaders and garment factory owners at the office of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA).[18] BCWS told us “we weren’t able to go the meeting as we didn’t get the assurance that we will not be arrested if we went.”

However, unions were still bargaining for higher wages for grades 5 and 6 (having agreed to the wage levels for grades 1-4 and 7). The date of implementation was also a key point of contention. While the wage board had set the date for November 1, the unions wanted immediate implementation, in part because the Eid festival bonus, which is collected in September, is based on the wages. The unions also requested that the ministries put into effect an earlier promise to review the existing rationing system and improve housing, childcare and healthcare facilities for garment workers.

July 31: Newspaper names BCWS leaders as instigators of unrest

The BCWS forwarded us an article from The Daily Star reporting on a case filed against 10 labor leaders who, according to newspaper accounts, were responsible for the “rampaging workers” who “vandalized over 200 business establishments and several factories.”[17] Two of the leaders named in the article are Kalpona Akter and Babul Akhter, the same two individuals named as instigators of unrest and agitation in the government brief, and the same two individuals whom the National Security Intelligence officials sought to capture on June 16 when they instead detained Aminul Islam, who was tortured in order to coerce him to sign incriminating statements against them. BCWS was alarmed. “Now the situation is like this that we could be arrested any moment. And we just heard Montu Ghosh [adviser of Garment Sramik Trade Union Kendra, Garment Workers Trade Union Center, and one of the ten labor leaders named in the Daily Star article] has been arrested last night,” they wrote. “We need your URGENT support.”


1 Writ Petition No. 4930 of 2010, filed with the Supreme Court of Bangladesh, June 10, 2010, in the matter of the Bangladesh Center of Worker Solidarity, represented by Kalpona Akter, General Secretary,  versus the Director General, N.G.O. Bureau, Prime Minister’s Secretariat.

2 Altab Hossain, “Registration of one NGO is cancelled,” Daily Samakal, June 10, 2010.

3 Aminul Islam’s full testimony is available here: http://www.sweatfree.org/docs/Aminul’s_Statement_18062010.pdf

4 International Trade Union Confederation, “2010 Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights,” available at  http://survey.ituc-csi.org/+-Bangladesh-+.html (accessed August 3, 2010).

5 Reported by Associated Press, “Garment Workers Riot in Bangladesh,” Wall Street Journal, July 31, 2010.

6 Study by Nari Uddug Kendra cited by Labour Behind the Label in “How Low Can You Go? Support Minimum Wage Increase in Bangladesh,” Sept 21, 2008, available at http://www.labourbehindthelabel.org

7 A.N.M. Nurul Haque, “Sewing up in garments sector,” The Daily Star, August 3, 2010, thedailystar.net.

8 “Dhaka garment workers in violent protests over low pay, The Guardian, July 30, 2010, guardian.co.uk.

9 See, for example, “Garment workers protest in Bangladesh,” The Guardian, June 30, 2010, guardan.co.uk.

10 Korshed Alam, Alternative Movement for Resources and Freedom Society (AMRF), “Recent unrest in garment sector in Bangladesh,” available at: http://epo-mediawatch.blogspot.com/2010/07/recent-unrest-in-garment-sector-in.html (accessed July 29, 2010).

11 Refayet Ullah Mirdha, “Garment workers’ minimum wage fixed at Tk 3,000,” The Daily Star, July 30, 2010, thedailystar.net.

12 “PM warns against anarchy, violence,” The Daily Star, August 1, 2010, thedailystar.net.

13 “PM warns stern action against anarchy,” New Age, August 1, 2010, newagebd.com.

14 “Workers agree on new wage,” The Daily Star, August 2, 2010, thedailystar.net.

15 “Briefing on BCWS’ registration with NGO Affairs Bureau,” on file with International Labor Rights Forum.

16 BCWS Review Petition to NGO Affair Bureau, July 27, 2010.  On file with International Labor Rights Forum.

17 “RMG wage sparks violent protests, The Daily Star, July 31, 2010, thedailystar.net.

18 “Workers agree on new wage,” The Daily Star, August 2, 2010, thedailystar.net.

19 “Wage increase won’t hurt RMG profit: WB economist,” New Age, August 6, 2010, newagebd.com.

20 “HC asks police not to torture labour leader Montu Ghosh,” New Age, August 6, 2010, newagebd.com.

21 “9 workers held for RMG unrest,” The Daily Star, August 7, 2010, thedailystar.net.

22 “Cops try in vain to justify HR violation,” The Daily Star, August 8, 2010, thedailystar.net.

23 “Another group tied to RMG unrest: RAB,” BDNews 24, August 9, 2010, bdnews24.com/corr/lh/saa/ha/ost/2240h.

24 “1 day remand for 9 garment workers,” BDNews 24, August 8, 2010, bdnews24.com/corr/msb/rn/1958h.

25 Letter “Regarding Cancellation of Registration of Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity (BCWS),” from Government of the People’s Republic of Bangladesh, NGO Affairs Bureau, to BCWS, June 3, 2010.  On file with International Labor Rights Forum.

26 BCWS Review Petition to NGO Affair Bureau, July 27, 2010.  On file with International Labor Rights Forum.

27 “Non-economic constraints threaten RMG sector: EU,” New Age, August 10, 2010, newagebd.com

28 “RMG labour unrest: Minister smells NGOs’ involvement,” The Daily Star, August 10, 2010, thedailystar.net

29 “Mosharraf asks RMG owners to allow trade unions,” New Age, August 10, 2010, newagebd.com

30 “Six female workers arrested,” The Daily Star, August 10, 2010, thedailystar.net.

31 See, “2 garment workers’ leaders arrested,” BDNews 24, August 13, 2010, bdnews24.com; “Two workers’ leaders held,” The Daily Star, August 14, 2010, thedailystar.net; “RMG leaders held for instigating rampage,” The New Nation, August 14, 2010, nation.ittefac.com; “2 RMG leaders arrested,” New Age, August 14, 2010, newagebd.com.

32 “RMG wage sparks violent protests, The Daily Star, July 31, 2010, thedailystar.net.

33 “50 injured as police, garment workers clash in Rupganj,” New Age, August 15, 2010, newagebd.com.