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Bangladesh: Stop Harassment and Intimidation of Apparel Worker Leaders

Campaign of Repression Against Effort to Organize Unions, Raise Wages

(New York) - The Bangladesh government should immediately stop its serious and sustained harassment of trade union leaders, labor rights activists, and workers in the ready-made garment (RMG) industry, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to the prime minister. The harassment is part of a campaign against labor right activists, union leaders, and workers who have been pressing for the right to organize unions and demanding increases in the minimum wage.

On July 29, 2010, after tripartite negotiations with government, workers, and employers, the government raised the monthly minimum wage for garment workers from 1662 taka (US$24) to 3000 taka (US$43). Workers contended the increase was less than needed to meet the rising cost of living for urban workers. As has occurred numerous times in the history of Bangladesh's ready-made garment industry, on July 30 and 31, angry workers took to the streets. They blocked roads and damaged factory and other property. Security personnel responded with force, injuring scores of the protesting workers.

"The authorities can prevent criminal violence by the protesters, but the security forces are not entitled to use excessive force to quell the protests," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "Unfortunately rather than seeking solutions, the government seems now to be looking for scapegoats to justify a severe crackdown on labor rights activists."

On July 30, the government accused Kalpona Akhter, Babul Akhter, and Aminul Islam, the leaders of the internationally recognized Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity (BCWS), of inciting worker unrest during the protests. The group has close ties with representatives of foreign apparel companies, nongovernmental organizations, and international trade union and labor rights groups. The leaders have denied the charges against them.

This latest development follows on the heels of other attempts by the government to severely restrict the work of the group and of other trade unionists pressing for an increase in the minimum wage. On June 3, without advance notice, the government's NGO Affairs Bureau (NAB) revoked the BCWS's license to operate as a nongovernmental organization, alleging the group was involved in instigating worker unrest. The BCWS strongly denied the NAB's claims and pointed out it was given no formal opportunity to rebut the allegations.

On June 16, National Security Intelligence Agency officers detained Islam when he appeared for a meeting with the director of labor. Islam states he was physically abused and threatened for two days until June 18, when he escaped from custody while being moved from the facility where he had been detained. He remains in hiding.

In the letter to the prime minister, Human Rights Watch urged the authorities to take steps to ensure the safety and security of labor rights activists from the BCWS and other trade union organizations that lawfully protest employment conditions. The letter called on the government to encourage judicial authorities either to drop the charges against the BCWS leaders or, if the authorities have lawfully obtained evidence against the group's leaders, to make that evidence public and accord them a fair and expeditious trial.

"The government should immediately cease harassing and intimidating the BCWS leaders and other labor rights activists," Robertson said. "Instead, the authorities should be investigating the use of violence against protesters and the alleged abuse in detention of Aminul Islam."

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