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Bangladesh Activists Allege Police Abuse, Intimidation

Bangladesh labor activists accused the police of beating and intimidating them to squelch a street protest.

The labor organizers went public with their accounts of abuse from law enforcement authorities, describing in chilling detail a violent encounter that occurred between police and demonstrators. Mohammed Selim, a leader with the Bangladesh Federation for Workers Solidarity (BFWS), said he was pinned to the ground and kicked until he lost consciousness. “I thought I was about to die,” he said. Hasina Akter, another activist,  said was assaulted and threatened with rape while she tried to register with a local labor union.

Syed Uddin Ahmed, director of the Institute of Labor Studies in Bangladesh, said, “The vast majority of garment workers in Bangladesh remain without collective-bargaining rights. Workers’ associations are struggling to make an impact because of legal barriers, their own weakness and opposition from factory management.”

In a complaint filed by the BFWS, it was alleged that an attempt to peacefully organize in February was thwarted by police violence that left four unionists hospitalized with serious injuries. “There were people from the factory as well as some local thugs,” said the federation’s Ms. Akter, once a factory worker herself. “They shouted that we were saboteurs who wanted to destroy the factory.” The police are currently investigating the allegations.

Despite signs of progress towards labor reform, attempts to bully workers’ organizers into submission are still widespread. Human Rights Watch recently issued a report that details a litany of labor abuses including the intimidation of workers with the threat of violence and murder and the rampant sexual harassment of female employees.

According to a Human Rights Watch spokesperson, union representatives were targeted for especially aggressive treatment. “The workers claimed that some managers intimidate and mistreat employees involved in setting up unions, including threatening to kill them.” And, apparently, the threats dispensed were not always empty. “Some union organizers said they were beaten up, and others said they had lost their jobs or had been forced to resign. Factory owners sometimes used local gangsters to threaten or attack workers outside the workplace, including at their homes, they said.”The report is a grim correction to more optimistic signs of momentum regarding the improvement of Bangladesh’s labor conditions.

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In May, the Obama administration will conduct a comprehensive review of Bangladesh’s improvements, just over a year following the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory that killed over 1,100 workers. Atiqul Islam, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, insists significant strides have been made. “There has been impressive progress,” he said. “Workers are free to form unions in factories big and small.”

Despite struggling with political instability and now infamously poor working conditions, Bangladesh continues to be a magnet for apparel suppliers. Its readymade garment exports climbed nearly 20 percent year-on-year during the first half of 2013. From July to December 2013, garment exports hit $11.93 billion, a significant improvement over the same period the previous year, which achieved $9.95. Exports of woven garments did particularly well, leaping 20.37% to $5.98 billion while knitwear exports increased by 19.55% to $5.95 billion. The Bangladesh government expects total garment exports this year to increase a little more than 12 percent to approximately $24 billion.