The Hidden War on Workers Rights in Bangladesh: Aminul Islam and the Autocratic State


by Surma

While the media focus in Bangladesh before and on the 6th April was on the Long March to Dhaka by Hefazot Islam, an anniversary of significant proportions came and passed without a murmur. That is the anniversary of the 4th April, of the death of the labour activist Aminul Islam. Perhaps unknown to the marchers on the 6th of April, the future of their political movement and demands, and the obstacles they face are linked with that of the dead activist.

A deeper and more disturbing  justification of repression, is the fact that its target is deemed not to fit into the meaning of what it is to be Bangladeshi, as espoused by Hasina Wajed, the Awami League, Prothom Alo and theDaily Star (what some commentators call the Grid). To understand the logical extreme of such a hegemonic view, one has to look at its impact on NGOs, in particular the advocacy of worker’s rights.Pages and megabytes have been written on the present government’s suppression of its political opposition, from the arrest of Jamaat cadres to the raid of BNP headquarters by police. Supporters of the government have justified such acts in the name of law and order.

The role of NGOs in Bangladesh

Non-governmental organisations (NGO) are legally constituted organisations that operate independently from government. The term originated from the United Nations, and normally refers to organisations that are not a part of a government and are not conventional for-profit businesses. In the cases where NGOs are funded totally or partially by governments, the NGO maintains its non-governmental status by excluding government representatives from organisational membership.

In a 2012 article the Economist regarded NGOs as the magical ingredient in improving living standards in Bangladesh, with the sectoral poster boy being BRAC. Simultaneously, the current Awami League government seems to be reversing the trend of being friendly to NGOs. From April to July 2010, the NGO Affairs Bureau (NAB) shut down 334 foreign-funded non-governmental organisations for their alleged “involvement in corruption, misuse of foreign funds and patronisation of militancy.” This compares to only 56 similar shutdowns in the previous two decades. On August 25, 2012, the government announced that it had cancelled the registration of some 6,000 NGOs because of links to “anti-state” activities and is in the process of examining the registration certificates of an additional 4,000. Human Rights Watch, in a report saw the move as an unprecedented step by the government to narrow civil and political space.

BCWS and the Advocacy of Workers Rights

One of the NGOs to incur the full wrath of this government is the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity (BCWS). It drew such anger for providing a different narrative, to an international audience, of workers organising for declining real wages and hazardous conditions. This picture was in contrast to the official story of happy workers in a prosperous economy, under the benign protection of a self proclaimed progressive secular regime. The government suppression against the BCWS is detailed in the report by the International Labor Rights Forum, Enemies of the State or Human Rights Defenders? Fighting Poverty Wages in Bangladesh.

The BCWS was borne out of a worker-led movement to establish the first trade union in a factory sourcing for a ready made garments retailer. Since the early 1990s, the BCWS has developed a good reputation of advancing workers’ rights by documenting labour abuses and violations, as well as strengthening the capacity of workers to advocate for themselves and advance their own interests.  BCWS is highly regarded by labour rights advocates world-wide and by the apparel companies it engages. Levi Strauss & Co has called BCWS “a globally respected labour rights organisation, which has played a vital role in documenting and working to remedy labour violations in the apparel industry in Bangladesh”.

The instruments of harassment and repression taken against the BCWS by the government resemble those deployed against the Awami League’s opponents generally, and fall into four main categories.

1) Death by Bureaucracy

On June 3, 2010, the NGO Affairs Bureau cancelled the NGO registration of BCWS, revoked their permit to receive foreign donations, and ordered their property seized and bank account frozen. In justification, the government alleged that BCWS had fomented worker unrest and violence. The NAB’s letter to BCWS asserts that the government “is convinced [of] your organisation’s involvement in several wrongful acts”, which purportedly, had “been proved.” Those wrongful acts included “inciting [a] riotous situation and assisting in creating labour unrest in the ready made garment sector” and unidentified “anti-state and social activities.”

BCWS staff were never told of any specific evidence against them and were never provided the opportunity to defend themselves before their NGO registration was revoked. Staff were not even notified of the cancellation until five days after the fact.

Similar tactics of bureaucratic destruction were used in the case of the Grameen Bank. Here the government used bureaucratic procedures to oust the founder Professor Muhammad Yunus and in effect take over the bank.

2) Security Force Brutality

Police have frequently rounded up BCWS staff, arrested and tortured them in custody. On June 16 2010, two weeks after the government cancelled BCWS’s NGO registration and accused its leaders of inciting riots and labour unrest, Aminul Islam was detained and tortured by officers of the National Security Intelligence, in an effort to extract a confession that BCWS leaders had been stoking riots among workers.

Aminul Islam stated, “They kept threatening they would kill me by crossfire, or beat me until I bleed to death. They showed me a bloodied carpet and said that they would injure me like Mahmudur Rahman. At one point they told me, “If you don’t answer us, we will take you to the Kapashia jungle and take you down by cross fire. No one will find you. No one even knows you are with us.””

The same pattern of security force brutality is seen against vocal opponents of the current Awami League government, such as the opposition Jammaat Islami or critics in the media, such as Daily Amar Desh editor, Mahmudur Rahman.

3) Stigmatisation and Criminalisation

A month after the arrest a report appeared in the Daily Star, concerning a case filed against labour leaders, who were responsible for the “rampaging workers” who “vandalised over 200 business establishments and several factories. Unsurprisingly, two of the leaders named were BCWS staff.

Despite their release on bail, charges against them remained, four of which were against Aminul Islam, who surrendered to the judge on August 29 2010. The trials for some of those charged could take anywhere from one to five years to reach a verdict, and if convicted BCWS staff could face years in prison.

The same mode of stigmatisation and criminalisation is seen against political opponents, as evidenced by the mass scatter gun suits brought against political activists of the BNP and Jamaat in the criminal courts.

4) Disappearance and Murder

In April 2012, two days after he disappeared, the BCWS organiser Aminul Islam’s body was found in Tangail, 40km away from Dhaka. 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, late Aminul 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.

One of the biggest mysteries in the case involves Mustafiz Rahman, the man who sought Islam’s help in arranging his wedding on the night of his disappearance.  Islam’s co-workers say that Rahman had ties to security forces, while an investigative account in the Dhaka-based New Age, reported that Rahman had helped police arrest a different labour organiser and had been seen in the presence of intelligence agents.

The same pattern of abduction and murder is repeated against leaders and activists of the main political parties, with high profile cases being  Chowdhury Alam in 2010, Abul Hasnanth in 2011, and Ilias Ali 2012. Human Rights Watch reports, that  Ain-O-Sailash Kendra, a leading human rights group in Bangladesh, had documented the disappearance of least 22 people in the first few months of 2012 alone. According to Odhikar, another Dhaka-based human rights group, more than 50 people have disappeared since 2010.

Methods of State Terror, its long list of victims and the emerging resistance

This multi-pronged approach of state terror cannot be simply explained away by the usual arguments of political violence. It is wider than political violence, as the assault is being carried out on non-political actors like the BCWS. To understand this drive to eliminate any opposing narrative or view, we can refer to the formative period for the current regime’s political practice. The drive is hardwired into the mindset of those dominating the party, which manifested in 1975 as BAKSAL, a one party state.

As a response to a growing totalitarian state, non-state actors are being forced to become active in opposing the current regime’s autocracy. From one section of the social spectrum we have BCWS and 4 million RMG sector workers, and from another we have religious conservatives with their myriads of the mosques, schools and seminaries. Both groups, the workers and the religious scholars have delivered ultimatums to the government.

The political crisis that is engulfing Bangladesh is not the battle between Left and Right, or of pro-Liberation Forces against so-called Razakars, but sees an ever autocratic state backed by its corporate friends waging war on civil society and the workers.

Source: The Khichuri