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From May Day to Labor Day, GlobalPost explores the human cost of what's been called a "race to the bottom." The hyper-accelerated movement of capital, jobs and resources from the world's corporations — manufacturing, agriculture and service — to the lowest bidder. In an era of diminished expectations, broken promises and sleight of hand, these are labor stories of governments, employers, unions and workers. 

Aminul Islam family
The family of Aminul Islam at their home in Kaliakoir, Bangladesh. Islam was found murdered, his body tortured, on April 6, 2012. (Asif Imteaz/GlobalPost)

The mysterious murder of a Bangladeshi labor activist

Aminul Islam's tortured body was found last month – friends and family suspect the police are involved in the crime.

DHAKA, Bangladesh — The body turned up in the northern district of Ghatail, dumped by the roadside near a police station. The victim’s toes were smashed, his ankles crushed. A hole had been drilled below one of his knees.

Last seen breathing on April 4 near his office in the outskirts of Dhaka, Aminul Islam was a labor activist and a thorn in the side of the powerful garment industry of Bangladesh, the second largest exporter of clothing in the world. The United States receives 80 percent of these exports, the largest beneficiary of what labor advocates have called the “race to the bottom” in terms of wages, benefits and job security.

His colleagues say Islam’s murder was retaliation for standing up for workers’ rights in Bangladesh, which has the lowest wages in the world and where a series of factory fires has claimed more than 300 lives in recent years. They fear that his case will never be solved because they suspect the police leading the investigation may have been involved in his death. The marks of torture on his body when it was discovered April 6, they say, were not unlike those he had endured at the hands of police and national security forces many times before.

Islam, who was a leader of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity (BCWS), is not the first person to meet such a fate. An estimated 200 people — politicians, journalists, and activists — have ‘disappeared’ under suspicious circumstances in Bangladesh since the present Awami League government came to power in 2009.

More from GlobalPost: Bangladesh's garment workers brave deadly fires

“[Islam's murder] was a long time coming. He was already targeted, he was a marked man.”
~Zia Ahad, garment industry veteran

In the days before his death, Islam, 40, had been registering complaints of workers at Shanta Group, a company producing American apparel for Tommy Hilfiger, Nike, and Ralph Lauren. He suffered months of internal bleeding in his right ear after a previous encounter with the country’s National Security Intelligence (NSI), had a history of getting regularly picked up and tortured by police and intelligence agencies. Less than 1 percent of the country’s workers are represented by trade unions while 10 percent of parliament is composed of garment factory owners.

“There are serious concerns that government security forces might be responsible for his torture and death,” wrote Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, in a letter to Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. The group has called on Hasina to launch an impartial investigation into Islam’s killing, the third time it has written to the prime minister about Islam in the last two years.

“He had so many enemies,” said Hosne Ara Fahima, Islam’s wife of 19 years. “His death was work related, of course it was because of his work. He had no enemies in his private life. Everyone in Kaliakoir knows Aminul Munshi [an Islamic honorific], he is famous here.”

*****

Bizarre circumstances marked the day Laboni Akhter last saw Islam, who had been her mentor since she joined BCWS six years ago. Islam noticed a police van waiting outside their office branch in Ashulia, a hub of the country’s garment industry. Nervous, he suggested to Laboni they lock up and leave early.

Before they were done, a garment worker called Mustafizur Rahman arrived, asking for Islam’s help, Laboni said. His request was an unusual one.

Kalpona Akhter.

(Asif Imteaz/GlobalPost)

“He was with a girl and wanted Aminul bhai [brother] to marry them. The girl was covered from head to toe in a burkha, her eyes the only visible part of her body. She didn’t give her name, she didn’t say anything. She was quite healthy, a large girl. Much bigger than me,” Laboni recalled.

Islam refused the request for an unofficial marriage ceremony and sent them away. The two BCWS colleagues closed their premises and left through a back entrance, intending to travel together for as much of their routes home as they could, a practice they had begun in response to harassment of BCWS staff by security forces.

But their journey was interrupted by a call from Rahman. He pleaded with Islam to meet him and the girl.

“He just kept asking and asking, saying she had run away from home, that they had a lot of money on them, that they had to leave Dhaka that night, that they could get into a lot of trouble if they were traveling as an unmarried couple,” Laboni said.

Islam finally agreed. “Aminul bhai never said no to requests for help,” Laboni said.

The two parted ways. As always, Laboni asked Islam to call her when he arrived home so she would know he was safe.

He never did.

“He was very labor rights motivated,” said Kalpona Akhter, the founder of BCWS. “If someone called at 1 a.m. he’d be there to help.”

*****

Accusations of responsibility for Islam’s death have focused on Bangladesh’s security forces and Shanta Group managers.

The BCWS team has focused its attention on the garment worker Rahman and the women he said was his bride-to-be.

But Islam’s colleagues believe that Rahman was a pawn of the people who killed Islam, while some suspect the burkha-clad woman was actually a male security agent.

Rahman could not be reached until two days after Islam vanished, and after a brief period when he was in contact he has dropped off the radar again, with no one able to find him.

Local police have declined repeated requests for comment.

Workers at Shanta Group suspect some of the company’s managers are behind the murder, according to BCWS.

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/regions/asia-pacific/120513/murder-bangladesh-labor-activist-garment-workers