2008: Arrest of Factory Investigator & Ongoing Worker Repression in Bangladesh
On 24 January 2008, two Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) staff members were detained by Bangladesh security forces. One of them, Mehedi Hasan, a field investigator for the Worker Rights Consortium, remains under arrest.
Hasan was incarcerated and authorities repeatedly refused to allow family members to visit him. Hasan’s arrest took place during a period of severe repression by the military-backed “caretaker” government, which banned political and trade union activities in January 2007.
A second, but not totally unrelated, issue involves the current regime’s wholesale repression of basic workers’ and labour activists rights to expression and assembly.
Hasan’s arrest appears to be part of a broader campaign of repression by the government against labour rights advocates in the wake of recent demonstrations by apparel workers in Dhaka. Both Bangladeshi and foreign labour rights advocates have experienced increased surveillance and have been subjected to interrogations; some have even been detained.
Emergency laws were implemented as part of the declaration of a state of emergency in January 2007. The goal of the new emergency regulations was to suppress government opposition and freedom of speech, association, assembly and expression.
Serious unrest in Bangladesh's garment industry has been commonplace over the past few years, in part due to the inability of workers to express their grievances through union representation. The appalling conditions in Bangladesh are well documented and include poverty wages, dire health and safety conditions and long hours. The repressive measures taken by the Bangladeshi government fail to address the legitimate concerns of workers and the underlying causes of the turmoil.
The Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) is a Washington, DC-based organisation affiliated with 178 American educational institutions. The CCC often works with the WRC.
Mr. Hasan’s job entailed monitoring compliance with codes of conduct in factories producing clothing for WRC-affiliated universities, a normal aspect of corporate social responsibility and an important part of efforts to assure consumers that the goods they buy are made under decent and fair working conditions.
Shortly after his detainment on 24 January, the CCC joined other human rights and labour rights groups across the globe, initiating a letter-writing campaign to demand the immediate release of Hasan and insist that the Bangladeshi government lift its ban on trade unions and stop the persecution of labour rights advocates.
The CCC also urged brands and retailers who source from Bangladeshi factories to intervene on Mr. Hasan’s behalf. The garment industry accounts for more than 75% of Bangladesh’s exports. “The government of Bangladesh risks losing the confidence of consumers, brands and retailers if it persists in persecuting innocent people who monitor labour conditions,” the CCC’s Ineke Zeldenrust pointed out. “We call on the Bangladeshi authorities to desist from harming Hasan in any way and to release him immediately.”
In April 2008, the CCC issued a statement critical of ongoing use of state-of-emergency laws to repress garment workers protesting the poor working conditions in Bangladesh’s garment, textile and sportswear factories as well as factories worldwide. The CCC urged brands sourcing in Bangladesh to guarantee workers’ internationally recognised rights of freedom of association and expression.
In August 2008, the CCC reiterated its demands: Bangladesh must observe national and international labour laws. It urged people to urge the Bangladeshi government to stop the repression of workers, trade unions, researchers, workers rights activists and policy advocates; enter into constructive dialogue with union and labour rights representatives; repeal emergency laws banning freedom of association and trade union activity and; implement the 2006 agreement detailing workers fundamental rights including freedom of association.
The CCC further urged stakeholders including factory owners, brands and public agencies to accept their responsibilities to halt the repressions and ensure that the industry develops a more constructive approach to dealing with workers rights violations.
The concerted efforts of human and labour rights activists around the world including the CCC were able to successfully pressure Bangladeshi’s authorities into releasing Hasan from custody on 3 February 2008.
Regarding the wholesale suppression of workers rights: There was a follow-up that included an overview of repression in Bangladesh; this was posted on the CCC website and sent to various brands that source in Bangladesh. This message included the following quote:
"Mr. Hasan’s case is no isolated incident. According to information provided by the media more than a dozen persons so far have been indicted in the cases filed in the past months. Electronic communication (cell phone, e-mail) of several concerned persons is also under surveillance. Media reports indicate that anyone considered to be[ing] a potential troublemaker, irrespective of her/his profession or occupation, would be indicted. Nobody is safe at this moment. Many trade union leaders are staying away from their known places as precaution. The measures taken by the present regime are creating a repressive environment. The concerns of the workers or the root causes of the turbulence have not been considered in the least. Unruly workers, 'outsiders', unionists and rights activists all have been blamed to the extent that an 'international conspiracy' has been 'discovered' as the cause of the prolonged unrest. Even the deaths of workers on duty get lost in this deliberate construction of reasoning… Against this backdrop, the arrest of Mr. Hassan and the implication of others have the potential to escalate a situation that would seriously damage the operations of the garment industry. The brunt of this fall-out would be borne by over two million workers, most of whom are women."