INTERNATIONAL LABOUR BANGLADESH:
SUPPORT BANGLADESHI WORKERS:
Bangladesh...a country whose main claim to "fame" is flooding and death during ever recurrent typhoons. Bangladesh...a country much of which may become unlivable in the not too distant future due to rising sea levels. Bangladesh...a country born out of a brutal civil war and the locus of what may be the most naked class struggle in the world.
The heart of this struggle is the garment industry which employs about 1.8 million people and accounts for about 80% of the country's export value. Everybody and his dog's socks have signed up with Bangladeshi factories for clothing supplies. From the highest fashion outfits to the bottom of the Walmart discount aisles (and even lower if you can imagine it). Interesting thought that the so-called "quality" products come from exactly the same sources as the dollar store deals.
The Bangladeshi garment industry is "famed" for having the lowest minimum wage for this type of work of any country in the world. Yes folks garment workers in China would be paid multiples of what Bangladeshi workers earn. Hence the gathering of vultures (excuse me "entrepreneurs") who head there to buy their goods to peddle across the world. Just today, after months of violent street protests the Bangladeshi government has agreed to raise the minimum wage in their country by 80% to a world shattering level of about $40 per month. Some unions in Bangladesh have agreed to this "compromise" while others such as the National Garment Workers Federation of Bangladesh consider it totally inadequate. The last raise in the minimum wage was won in 2006 after the usual street clashes with government forces, just as this one was. That's "collective bargaining" in that country, the only way that workers can advance their interests.
Just as a sidebar to this the agreement depends not just on agreement between the government and the unions. It also depends on the agreement of the employers' associations !!! Now that is indicative of the general deference to the ruling class that the Bangladeshi state shows. I can't think of any other country in the world where the state would have to go to the "capitalists in congress" to raise the minimum wage. Or at least do it openly.
One of the victims of the Bangladeshi state's perpetual war against its workers has been the 'Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity'. The following appeal from Sweatfree Communities asks you to protest the repression that the Bangladeshi state visits upon this organization while, at the same time, pretending to give concessions to its workers. First of all a little background.
Where's the Freedom for Workers in Bangladesh?
On June 3, 2010, the government of Bangladesh cancelled the legal status of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, one of the most respected non-governmental organizations in Bangladesh working in the area of labor rights, and ordered 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 coerced him to sign an incriminating statement against himself, alleging he was inciting worker unrest and illegal activities. He was severely beaten before he managed to escape. The timing of events suggests that this crackdown against BCWS may be taking place at the behest of a garment factory where workers are attempting to form an independent union. In blaming BCWS of “fomenting unrest and agitation in the garment sector,” the government is also signaling that they are not taking seriously the struggles of garment workers who subsist on starvation wages and are taking to the streets demand a tripling of the minimum wage to the still appallingly low wage of 35 cents per hour. BCWS and garment workers are now appealing for your help to protect their rights and ensure a dignified wage.
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Who is the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity?
The Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity (BCWS) was founded in 2001 by two former child garment workers in Bangladesh in order to promote worker rights and “establish a congenial atmosphere in the working place to increase productivity and contribute to the national economy.” 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 children of garment workers. Thanks to the work of BCWS many workers can enjoy their legal benefits, including maternity leave, and exercise their 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 putting 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 (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.”
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 Mr. Islam 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 Mr. Islam along with three workers.
According to Mr. Islam’s testimony, he managed to escape custody late at night the same day while being transported to another district. Mr. Islam reports that the NSI officers blindfolded him, 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 Mr. Islam. “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 Mr. Islam 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.” Mr. Islam’s testimony continues in excruciating detail, describing the beatings and threats to kill him and orphan his children, and covering up his killing in a so called “cross-fire” incident.
Mr. Islam 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.
Mr. Islam’s escape from the NSI officers on June 16 was not the end of this crisis for BCWS. As his testimony reveals, the real targets of the security forces are the leaders of BCWS who have worked tirelessly to support workers’ rights in recent years. 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%. Mr. Islam 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.” BCWS staff and leaders remain at risk of unlawful detention and possible inhumane and degrading treatment at the hand of the authorities. As of this writing, BCWS legal status has not been restored though the government has not ceased their offices and properties.
Why is BCWS targeted?
Is one factory responsible?
The immediate cause of the cancellation of BCWS’s legal status appear to be related to BCWS supporting workers in their effort to form an independent trade union at one particular garment factory, Nassa Global Wear. After management beat and harassed union leaders, 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 NAB did not officially notify BCWS of the cancellation of their legal status until June 10, one week after the fact, Nassa 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 Mr. Islam was detained and beaten by national security police, Nassa reportedly filed criminal charges against two members of the BCWS staff, including Mr. Islam, and 57 workers, claiming they had beaten managers, vandalized the factory, and stolen property. As of this writing, BCWS is reporting continued unrest at Nassa, including workers beaten by “local goons” both inside and outside the factory. On July 22, an estimated 40 workers were injured at Nassa, breaking news on Bangladeshi television.
Depriving workers’ demands for higher wages of legitimacy and credibility
Targeting BCWS serves to trivialize workers’ demands for better working conditions and higher wages. The legal minimum wage in Bangladesh is the lowest in the world at about $24 per month (1,662.50 Bangladeshi takas), forcing garment workers to subsist on starvation wages. 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 adopted, they estimated the cost per month, per person, for food sufficient to meet this calorie intake was $20. Since 2006, the prices of almost all essential food items have doubled, and in some cases tripled. That means 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. That is why workers are now taking to the streets in the tens of thousands, shutting down factories, and demanding a tripling of the minimum wage to the still very modest $72 per month (5,000 Bangladeshi takas). If they were to win their demands, garment workers would still only be paid 35 cents an hour and subsist on just more than $2 per day.
It is no wonder that garment workers struggling for their survival are demanding more money. But the government is blaming BCWS, implying that workers’ demands somehow are not genuine but manipulated. In its official NGO cancellation notification to BCWS, the government accuses BCWS of “inciting to create riotous situation and assisting in creating labor unrest in the ready made garment sector, and in anti-state and social activities” as though garment workers needed any provocation to demand their right to survival. An official government brief accuses two BCWS leaders of “fomenting unrest and agitation in the garments sector.” Instead of recognizing workers’ real human needs and basic right for a dignified wage, the government reportedly is considering adding to its apparatus of repression by forming a new “industrial police” specifically for the ready-made-garments sector. According to a Bangladeshi daily newspaper this new police force would use an “iron hand” to deal with worker unrest, a chilling message indeed.
Workers need your help
While BCWS has kept us apprised of developments over the last month and a half they have waited to appeal for your help until now, seeking first to exhaust every possible local remedy. Now they have reached the point where they are appealing to people of conscience the world over to support them in their struggles for garment workers’ basic rights and survival.
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Please go to this link to send the following letter to the authorities in Bangladesh.
Having been alerted by the International Labor Rights Forum, I write to express grave concern regarding the unjust detention of Aminul Islam, who was held in NSI (National Security Intelligence) custody without any formal complaint on June 16, 2010, in apparent retaliation against his work to protect the rights of laborers in Bangladesh. I am also writing to urge your government to restore the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity’s (BCWS) status as a non-governmental organization by allowing it to keep its registration with the NGO Affairs Bureau (NAB).
It is my understanding that BCWS and Mr. Islam have been accused of inciting worker unrest. However, BCWS is an internationally known and well respected advocate for workers’ rights with a strong record in credible research and professionalism. As you are well aware, workers are demanding that the minimum wage be raised to 5,000 taka. It is essential that the Minimum Wage Board do the right thing and raise workers’ wages to a dignified level before the deadline at the end of July, 2010. While this issue may have caused some stress to the Bangladeshi government, it is unacceptable for you to target organizations like BCWS. The actions against BCWS call to question the sincerity of the Bangladeshi government to follow through on its commitments to improve labor rights.
I respectfully call upon your government to:
1. Immediately withdraw the cancellation letter of June 3, 2010, and restore BCWS’s NGO registration.
2. Investigate Mr. Islam’s detention and torture and hold those individuals responsible accountable and ensure they pay appropriate reparation.
3. Ensure Mr. Islam receives the medical treatment he needs.
4. Provide Mr. Islam and all other BCWS staff members with assurances of their safety.
5. Instruct the Deputy Commissioner of Dhaka to desist from seizing the office and property of BCWS.
6. Instruct the Manager of the Mercantile Bank to desist from freezing the BCWS bank account.
BCWS is a vital voice for labor rights in Bangladesh. I am disturbed to see that local efforts to improve conditions for workers are being met with intimidation and repression by the government. I hope that you will resolve this situation immediately and recommit yourself to allowing labor rights organizations to operate freely without fear of reprisal.