Justice for Labor Rights Advocates in Bangladesh
Update on the BCWS
|Alert! On December 14, 2010, a preventable fire raged at a
factory producing for JC Penney, Abercrombie, and Phillips-Van Heusen in
Bangladesh. It resulted in at least 35 deaths and left hundreds of
other garment workers injured. For more information see the blog Labor is not a Commodity. |
Photo: Babul Akhter and Kalpona Akter.
January 13, 2011
September 10, 2010: Kalpona and Babul Released on Bail
Only days before a magistrate judge unexpectedly held a special hearing for Kalpona, Babul, and Aminul, granting them bail on all charges and ordering their release, it had appeared increasingly likely that they would remain in jail indefinitely until their cases were heard. Even after being granted release, they had to wait in a jail office room for seven long hours to receive clearance from the Special Branch of the police, National Security Intelligence, and the Directorate General of Forces Intelligence. The deputy jailor told them he even needed permission from the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association to let them go. But on Friday, September 10, at 10 p.m, the start of the Eid Festival which marks the end of Ramadan, they were finally released on bail.
After the first week of freedom, Kalpona reported that Babul had pain in his knees and back and could not sit down for extended periods. They were both exhausted and suffered from stress. “Whenever I close my eyes and try to sleep I just see the jail, the police, the interrogation, and the court,” Kalpona said. “Babul sees the people torturing him.” Aminul was in better condition though he suffered from pain in his ears, a lingering effect of the beating he received from National Security Intelligence personnel on June 16. After the second week of freedom, Kalpona received a medical report that she was suffering from Panic Disorder, an anxiety disorder characterized by recurring episodes of intense fear and apprehension. Months later they were still reporting serious physical ailments since their release, including skin and respiratory infections, back pain, gastrointestinal problems, and difficulty sleeping.
Despite their release on bail, all charges remained against them: seven against Kalpona, eight against Babul, and four against Aminul who had surrendered to the judge on August 29. The government continued to claim it had evidence against all three of them.
Three of the cases were filed under the Speedy Tribunal Act. Those cases must reach a verdict within sixty days of the beginning of trial. The trials for the other charges could take anywhere from one to five years to reach a verdict. If convicted on any of the charges against them, Kalpona, Babul, and Aminul could face years in prison.
August 13, 2010: Kalpona and Babul arrested
Kalpona and Babul were arrested on Friday, August 13, at the start of Ramadan, a month of healing and purification. At 2 a.m., under the cover of night, 20 uniformed and plainclothes police entered their hiding place, rousing them from their sleep, and confiscated computers and paperwork belonging to BCWS.
By evening the first online news reports of their arrests appear. The story is that six female workers, arrested on August 9, identified Kalpona and Babul “as the two leaders who provoked them to resort to violence, demanding 5,000 taka as minimum wage.” 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.” However, these six workers were earlier said to have identified “two factory workers who prompted their fellows to vandalism” at the Floret Fashion Wear factory as the instigators of violence. Neither Kalpona nor Babul is a factory worker and neither has ever worked at Floret Fashion Wear.
Thus, the first time that any evidence against the BCWS leaders is made public it is of a highly dubious nature. We still do not know what evidence, if any, the government had for first making allegations against BCWS when the NGO Affairs Bureau revoked their NGO registration on June 3, 2010. As for the Detective Branch’s claim that Kalpona and Babul not only instigated workers to riot, but also accepted owners’ bribes to quiet the workers, is it reasonable that they can so deftly manipulate the workers as to turn them on and off like a light switch?
August 8, 2010: More Raids
Kalpona says 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, the night before the Detective Branch, the Rapid Action Battalion, 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. Managers have hired a lawyer and posted bail for them.
August 7, 2010: The RAB surrounds Kalpona's house
“This morning 16 cops from the RAB and local police surrounded my house again. They were there about four hours while my mom was alone at home. They demanded our caretaker tell them whether I or any male member of my family was home. He told them that except for my mom no one was home.
“About 4 p.m. this afternoon, another group of cops (two male and two female) went by my old living place, looking for me, my brother, and brothers-in-law. Some of my brother's friends misdirected the cops and helped my brothers-in-law 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. Ms. Taslim Zahan, Program Coordinator, and Mr. Jahangir Alam, Accounts and Administration, have been threatened. They told them if they do not cooperate they would have the same problem as we have very soon.”
August 6, 2010: The RAB arrests workers
The headline news of the day in newspapers and on television was that the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), the anti-crime and anti-terrorism Bangladeshi elite force, had arrested nine workers on charges of causing violence in the Mohakhali, Gulshan, and Tejgaon areas on July 30. them in front of television cameras, officials said that these workers were “criminals posing as workers,” linked to workers’ organizations that RAB claimed were being funded to instigate violence.
Kalpona worried that the RAB “had received very important information regarding the supposed agitators from the nine arrested workers” 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 continues.
“Mahidul and Shawpan, two of the worker leaders who work for CIPL (a factory of the Epic Group) have 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 Intelligence Forces, or other security forces. They were captured at 3 a.m. this morning from their house.
“Shawpan is the vice chairman and Mahidul the secretary of the worker participation committee at CIPL. Management has not filed any complaint 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 or 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 workes for many years. Maybe the government is playing some game here with us, trying to get Mahidul and Shawpan to accuse us of crimes.
“I should mention that the owner and workers in this factory have a very good relation. If we rank factories here in Bangladesh then this factory would be number one.”
August 5, 2010: Hunted at day, moving at night
“Yesterday morning, around 7 a.m., a person came to my house at Uttara where I live with my mom, brother, and my youngest sister. The person told our caretaker and 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 didn't recognize this person. So our caretaker understood that something was wrong and informed him that I wasn’t home and had gone out about an hour ago. The person left his cell number with the caretaker 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 caretaker 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 asked him why he was looking for me. At first he didn’t answer me directly. He 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 started threatening 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 our power. Now we know where you and your family live and we know how to get you in custody.’
“Afterwards this person called our caretaker, 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 and the Detective Branch surrounded my house overnight looking for me, but they didn’t go inside. 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.
“During the day we can stay at a safe location (up to now) but the problem is overnight. 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, 2010: Raids
“Today our lawyer informed us that there are six cases filed against us and other leaders. 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 11 days. Police are looking madly for me and Babul, and if they arrest us they will make our situation worse than for Mr. Ghosh.
“We also learned that 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 officer in charge suggested they should accuse me, Babul, and Aminul in the case. As we were not involved, the managers disagreed. But the officer would not accept the case if the managers did not accuse us. Again the managers refused to file a case against us. The officer then told them to wait and after a conversation with top level government officials he accepted the case without charging us. So, it is clear that the government intends to blame us as much as they can.
“The last three days some people in civilian dress went to my house where I used to live (I have recently moved) and where my sisters and their families live. They were looking for me. They said they were from the Detective Branch and local police. When my sisters and their husbands said they don't know where I was, 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 families didn’t tell them where I was those people said that if they couldn't find me they would come back soon again and arrest my sisters and their husbands.
“Just an hour ago, Dokhinkhan Police Station officers and Detective Branch police raided my two sisters’ houses again, looking for me, Babul and my brother. They were very lucky that they managed to hide. They are still under cover. My sisters are unsafe and insecure in 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.
“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.”
August 2, 2010: A "telephone company worker" and a "garment worker" look for BCWS leaders
“Today someone called my brother-in-law's cell phone and asked for detailed information about me. The person who called said that he was calling from the Grameenphone Center and that they need information regarding my SIM card as I am the subscriber of Grameenphone. Jakir, my brother-in-law, checked the number that was calling and saw that it was not a Grameen number. He said that I was not home. 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. Later my mother, brother, and Babul's wife received calls from this same number.
“At noon today a person called me claiming to be a garment worker. He said he had some problems and wanted to meet me. When I asked him which garment factory employs him and where he works, 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.”
August 1, 2010: "Reporters" look for BCWS leaders
“Worker leaders in the Rampura area held a meeting at our Rampura office to discuss the new minimum wage structure and the cases that have been filed against us. Special Branch, National Security Intelligence, and Khilgone and Rapmpura Police Station officers were present at the meeting. A lady who identified herself as Synthia Rahman and said she worked as a crime reporter for the Daily Jugantor (a Bangla newspaper) also attended the meeting. She called me afterwards explaining she recently joined the Jugantor, was impressed with our work, and would write a positive report about us. She requested a meeting with me as soon as possible. After we talked, she called our Accounts and Administration Officer, Mr. Jahangir, and asked for my address. But he said he didn’t know where I lived. Then she sent me a text message requesting a meeting and also called one of our worker leaders to ask when she could meet me. But when I called the Jugantor office, asking for this crime reporter, Ms. Synthia Rahman, the person who answered, a Mr. Kollol, informed me, after checking all the department records, that there is no crime or other type of reporter named Synthia Rahman.
“On the same day another person called me, identifying himself as Mr. Bashir, a reporter with Bhorer Kagoj (a Bangla-language newspaper). He asked what we think about the new minimum wage, what information we are giving the workers, and how the workers are reacting. I made our position clear to him and he requested that I keep in touch with him if there is any news. Then last night I called the Bhorer Kagoj to find this Mr. Bashir. They said they don't have a reporter named Bashir and that the number he used when calling me is not their number. Today when I called his land line I found that it goes to a National Security Intelligence office.”
July 31, 2010: BCWS leaders said to be responsible for "rampaging workers"
Kalpona sent an article from The Daily Star reporting on a case filed against ten labor leaders who, according to newspaper accounts, were responsible for the “rampaging workers” who “vandalized over 200 business establishments and several factories.” Two of the leaders named were Kalpona and Babul.
Kalpona was alarmed. “ Now the situation is like this that we could be arrested any moment. And we just heard Montu Ghosh [to the Garment Sramik Trade Union Kendra and the Garment Workers Trade Union Center, and one of the ten labor leaders named in The Daily Star] has been arrested last night,” she wrote. “We need your URGENT support.”
To Learn More about the BCWS arrests:
For more information about the persecution of BCWS leaders visit our materials page to read the full report and learn how to take action.
Human Rights in Bangladesh:
The arrests of Kalpona and Babul are a consequence of a labor industry in Bangladesh that prizes financial motivations above the rights and saftey of the workers. Since this time, further events have shown how toxic this attitude truly is for workers in Bangladesh. On December 14, 2010 there was a factory fire in Bangladesh that resulted in the death of around 35 people. This horrific tragedy was not the first of it's kind, nor will it be the last unless something is done. Read more about this from the International Labor Rights Forum, Labor is not a Commodity, The New York Times, The Nation, and Alternet.