One year since trade unionist’s murder, brands fail to take responsibility

Exactly one year ago, on 25 June 2023, trade union activist Shahidul Islam, was attacked and killed in front of the Prince Jacquard Sweater Ltd factory in Bangladesh. Despite repeated outreach by the Clean Clothes Campaign network to the garment brands identified as sourcing at the factory, the family has received almost no compensation from brands. Today, we commemorate Shahidul Islam’s life and activism and urge all involved brands to take responsibility and all brands sourcing from Bangladesh to take meaningful measures to ensure workers’ right to organise.
Memorial for Shahidul Islam shortly after his murder in 2023

Shahidul Islam was an organiser for the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation (BGIWF) for 25 years. He became involved in the Prince Jacquard Sweater workers’ fight for their unpaid wages and bonuses from December 2022 onwards. On 25 June 2023, he left the factory when a gang of men attacked and killed him because of his activism. He left behind a wife and two sons.  

Kalpona Akter, President of the BGIWF said: "It has been one whole year since Shahidul's murder and still brands refuse to accept any responsibility. If brands claim to promote human rights due diligence in their supply chains, when will they take action to ensure that organizers like Shahidul Islam can exercise their right to freedom of association without fear of violence? When will they compensate his grieving family?"

The Clean Clothes Campaign network, of which BGIWF is a member, immediately after the murder urged the government of Bangladesh to thoroughly and transparently investigate the murder, identifying all perpetrators, including connections between the assailants and the factory management. One year on, the investigation drags on slowly. Although 14 people, including one administrative management official of Prince Jacquard Sweater’s Ltd., have been charged, labour rights groups and Shahidul’s family maintain that higher level company officials were likely involved and should be investigated. 

Clean Clothes Campaign network members identified and contacted the brands which sourced from the factory between one year before the murder and the months after, urging them to contribute to compensation for the family. This should amount to at least 24,934,830 BDT (ca. 212k USD) for Shahidul Islam’s family to replace his expected lifetime earnings in line with ILO Convention 121, which is the minimum amount they should be receiving and could be even higher if accounting for compensation for emotional pain and suffering. Thus far, of the many brands identified, only one brand contributed to compensation to the family, amounting to a mere 2% of what the family should receive.

Today, the Clean Clothes Campaign launches a tracker, which will monitor to what extent brands have contributed to compensation to the family. It identifies six brands that carry extra responsibility to pay up: US-Canadian wholesaler RD Style (which supplies to Saks Off Fifth, Anthropologie and others), German brand New Yorker, and Swedish brand Lager 157 put in the highest amount of orders at the factory in the year before the murder - and in case of RD Style and Lager 157 also in the year since. South African company Ackermans-Pepcor, Italian brand Piazza Italia, and Danish DK Company (owner of dozens of brands, including InWear and ICHI) are among the richest companies identified. 

Emma Vogt, Urgent Appeals Coordinator at the Clean Clothes Campaign International Office, said: “Together, these six companies placed orders worth hundreds of thousands of dollars to this factory, keeping it afloat while it trampled on its workers’ rights. They looked away when the worst possible human rights violation happened in their supply chain. They could easily afford to contribute to ensure the family does not fall into poverty, and should do so immediately.”   

The murder did not happen in a vacuum but is one of the horrific climaxes of the intensely repressive environment in which garment workers make clothes for garment brands and consumers around the world. Only five months after the murder, four workers were killed, dozens arrested, and thousands threatened with criminal charges as part of a crackdown on wage protests.

Garment brands fuel this repression through their insistence on low prices and the continuous implicit threat that they could shift production to even lower wage countries if they are not satisfied. Factory owners and the government of Bangladesh, which is heavily entangled with the garment industry in the country, have been violently repressing garment workers’ attempts to organise and their demands for higher wages for decades, in order to remain internationally competitive. 

For actual change to happen in the industry, workers need to be able to organise to drive this change, but brands have done very little to ensure the workers in their supplier factories can enjoy this right. Brands often consider freedom of organisation as a tick-box exercise, where it is enough that an auditing company tells them there is no active obstruction. Human Rights Watch shows that it is not uncommon for these audits to be filled in with ready-made responses. Yet, several of the brands that sourced from the Prince Jacquard Sweater factory continue to hide behind audit reports in order to deny any responsibility for the murder that happened at their supplier.  

All brands sourcing from Bangladesh, and in particular all brands associated with the factory, must ensure that all their suppliers provide access to organisers of independent union federations to speak to workers and remain neutral during any independent organizing effort. These measures are moreover only meaningful, if brands additionally clearly communicate their expectations to suppliers around respect for fundamental labour rights, including freedom of association and collective bargaining, and promptly investigate and take action to address any violations of these rights in their supply chains.  

Babul Akter, General Secretary of BGIWF, said: "Shahidul Islam was killed outside Prince Jacquard Sweaters Ltd., but workers and organisers fear violence and harassment in many other factories too. All brands and buyers should pay attention, be accountable, and take steps to make their supply chain safe."

published 2024-06-25