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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's tortured body was found last month – friends and family suspect the police are involved in the crime.
A garment worker in one of Ashulia's more than 1,000 factories.
The troubles at Shanta began in March, when workers approached Islam and Laboni claiming managers were beating them and sexually harassing female colleagues. On March 9, police burst into BCWS’s Ashulia office, snapped a photo of Laboni, and dragged Islam off to jail.
Islam was charged with plotting to gather 30,000 people for an opposition party political rally, even though Islam had voted and campaigned for the incumbent Awami League party in the 2009 elections.
“Whoever called the police with these false charges is behind the killing,” said Babul Akhter, president of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation, who had worked closely with Islam.
Babul said he is not sure if the police are responsible. “The marks on his body, the signs of torture, it’s very similar to what the NSI did to him before,” he observed.
Babul speaks from personal experience. Along with Kalpona and Islam, he has paid dearly for the 2010 garment industry riots, when workers rose up and vandalized factories in protest of the minimum wage of that time, which was below the poverty threshold of $1 a day.
The three were thrown in jail. “[The police] thought we were instigating things. They didn’t realize this was really a case of workers rising up for themselves,” Babul said.
“They accused us of anti-state activity. Well, when 10 percent of parliament members are garment owners, what do you expect?” Kalpona asked.
While in custody all three were harassed; Babul and Islam were beaten and physically tortured.
“They blindfolded me, pushed me to the ground, and beat me in the back with a fat stick,” Babul remembered. “They said they’d cripple me, or kill me in a ‘crossfire’ incident. They kept shouting at me, asking ‘will you speak about workers’ rights again?’”
“I was interrogated for 18 hours straight,” Kalpona said. “The last four hours were 11 people in the room yelling the same question at me over and over. Medical reports say that I still have panic disorder.”
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Their treatment sparked an outcry from international watchdogs, leading to their release. Kalpona presented a petition to Walmart CEO Mike Duke at its annual shareholder meeting last year, appealing in vain for the retail giant — the Bangladeshi garment industry’s single biggest customer — to intervene on behalf of Islam and BCWS.
BCWS’s staff continues to fight multiple lawsuits filed against them by factory owners.
“[Islam’s murder] was a long time coming,” said Zia Ahad, who has worked for Reebok and GAP. “He was already targeted, he was a marked man since 2010. If the industry is implicated, then heaven help the industry.”
Islam’s murder has terrified activists across the country.
“Every moment now we think someone is following us,” Kalpona said. “We feel the vultures are circling around our heads now. Our colleagues are having nightmares.”
As she was speaking, Kalpona was interrupted at one point by Laboni, who was scheduled to attend a meeting with Shanta Group workers. “I was thinking that this time maybe I wouldn’t go,” Laboni requested.
“She has never asked for that before,” Kalpona said after Laboni left.
Kalpona has been involved in the industry since she was 13, when she began working in a factory as a child laborer.
She became a labor activist at 18, when she started to teach herself English. Fluent now, she describes her experiences as motivation for her crusade.
“I suffered. My supervisor used to slap me. I didn’t know anything about overtime pay. I lost my work because I complained, I was blacklisted. There should not be any more Kalpona,” she said passionately.
Twenty-eight-year-old Laboni, in contrast, entered directly into work with BCWS. Islam’s protégé has been rattled perhaps more than anyone else by his horrific death.
Startled by loud noises, jumpy whenever people come up next to her, she is now on sleeping pills and has frequent nightmares of Islam coming to take her away.
“Aminul bhai gave me a lot of my courage to do my work, he used to reassure me when I was scared,” she said. “The way they killed him, they must have had so much anger for him. We worked together in the same office for a long time, they must have the same anger toward me.”
Her initially supportive family and husband are now so worried for her safety they don’t allow her to leave the house, and want her to quit.
“I always think tomorrow might be my turn. Maybe that’s what they wanted, to scare us into leaving. I don’t think I should leave, but there’s a lot of pressure on me.”