US, rights watchdog press Bangladesh to investigate union leader’s killing

Ahammad Foyez
US, rights watchdog press Bangladesh to investigate union leader’s killing Bangladeshis gather in front of the National Press Club in Dhaka to protest the killing of union leader Shahidul Islam, June 27, 2023.

International pressure is mounting on Bangladesh to ensure that workers can negotiate for pay increases without intimidation, following the beating death of a union leader after he visited a garment factory to seek back pay for employees. 

The June 25 killing of union activist Shahidul Islam near Dhaka has angered the labor movement in the South Asian nation and shone a spotlight on workers in its all-important garment industry being able to work without fear of reprisals for agitating for decent wages and workplace rights.   

The U.S. ambassador said Washington was keeping a close eye on the outcome of the case, when he met this week with Bangladeshi union leaders. The next day, New York-based Human Rights Watch called on Bangladesh to end violations of garment workers’ rights including anti-union tactics by managers and assaults on union organizers.

“Ensuring justice and compensation for Shahidul Islam’s death will be a huge test for Bangladesh as the world watches,” Claudio Francavilla, senior European advocate at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement issued Thursday. 

“A labor leader’s murder is a disturbing setback for workers’ freedoms to organize and to seek the support of union leaders to solve labor disputes.”

During his visit to the offices of the Bangladesh Garments and Industrial Workers Federation in Dhaka on Wednesday, U.S. Ambassador Peter Haas condemned Islam’s killing and called for speedy prosecution of those responsible.

“We will be watching the case carefully to make sure that there is accountability,” Haas said.

Meanwhile, a delegation of U.S. government officials is scheduled to visit Bangladesh next week ahead of the upcoming elections in the South Asian nation due at the end of 2023 or in January 2024.

Islam, the president of the federation’s Gazipur unit, was fatally beaten following his visit to the Prince Jacquard Sweater Ltd. company on June 25, where he negotiated on behalf of the workers.

Having seen a police incident report, HRW said Islam went to the factory in Gazipur, a suburb of Dhaka, “to urge management to provide workers with two months of unpaid wages and a bonus for the Eid holiday.”

In Bangladesh, Eid-ul-Adha was celebrated on June 29.

HRW noted that a “gang of men” beat Islam and three other organizers outside the factory.

“According to the report, the attackers berated him for demanding wages as they kicked and punched him until he was unconscious. Islam was taken to a nearby hospital, where he was declared dead later that night,” HRW said.

06 BD inside.jpg
Trainees work at Snowtex garment factory in Dhamrai, near Dhaka, April 19, 2018. [A.M. Ahad/AP]

The ready-made garment industry is one of Bangladesh’s largest and a pillar of its export economy. It employs at least 3 million workers – mostly women – who work for low wages in factories that often have a poor safety record.  

Last year, exporters and economists said the nation was luring buyers from the United States and European Union who have cut back on purchases from China. They said relatively low costs, reliability and easy labor availability are among the reasons for U.S.-based buyers increasing orders from Bangladesh.

HRW said Bangladesh is the main beneficiary of the European Union’s “Everything But Arms” arrangement granting tariff-free export to the European market to least developed countries. The nation is under what is called “enhanced engagement” by the European Union Commission over “concerns with the country’s overall adherence to human and labor rights.”

Francavilla called on the European Union to “urgently and vocally request” that the Bangladesh government report on its efforts to ensure a transparent and swift probe of the killing and allow workers to freely exercise their rights to assembly and association.

“The EU should use its major trade leverage to demand justice, lay out consequences if Bangladesh authorities fail to reverse their abusive trend,” he said in the news release.

Murder case filed

On June 26, Kalpana Akter, the federation’s central president, filed a murder case at the Tongi West Police Station naming six suspects.

“The killers have basically worked as mercenary terrorists of the factory owner under the name of a labor leader,” she told BenarNews.

Akter said police had arrested one suspect, identified as a trade union official named Mazaharul.

She questioned the lack of additional arrests.

“The police are negligent in arresting the accused and investigating the case,” Akter said.

Utpal Kumar, the sub-inspector at the Tongi West Police Station, dismissed Akter’s allegation.

“We are investigating this case with utmost importance. There is no issue of negligence,” he told BenarNews.

The nation’s law minister, meanwhile, supported the police.

“The government’s position regarding this case is very clear. Police have already arrested one person, investigation is progressing properly,” Law Minister Anisul Huq told BenarNews.

“Our government does not believe in the principle of lawlessness. People involved in the killing must be taken to trial.”

HRW said the factory’s managing director had denied any connection to the killing.

US visit

Human Rights Watch issued its statement days before U.S. officials were expected to visit Bangladesh from July 11 to 14. 

Uzra Zeya, undersecretary for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights, is to lead the delegation. Others expected to travel to Bangladesh are Donald Lu, assistant secretary of state for the Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs, and Änjali Kaur, USAID deputy assistant administrator.

On Thursday, Bangladesh Foreign Secretary Masud Bin Momen said issues of mutual interest including trade and labor along with human rights and repatriation of Rohingya refugees could be on the agenda.

“During the visit many issues will be discussed. Election issues may come up for discussion as one of the issues – we are not ruling this out,” Momen said, according to Rafiqul Islam, acting director general of the foreign ministry’s public diplomacy wing.


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