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Labour Activist Killed in Bangladesh: Human Rights Watch Calls for Independent Probe

Newsclick Report |
Labour activist Shahidul Islam was beaten to death after visiting a factory to secure unpaid wages for the workers.
labour protest

Delhi: Hundreds of garment workers and labour campaigners have taken to the streets of Bangladesh's capital, Dhaka, in protest following the brutal murder of union leader Shahidul Islam. 

The incident occurred on June 25, 2023, when Islam, the president of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation Gazipur district committee, was beaten to death after visiting a factory in Gazipur to secure unpaid wages for the workers. 

The Human Rights Watch has called for an independent and transparent investigation into the murder, urging the Bangladesh authorities to ensure justice is served.

The murder of Shahidul Islam highlights the ongoing violations of garment workers' rights in Bangladesh, including anti-union tactics by managers and assaults on union organizers. 

Claudio Francavilla, senior EU advocate at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement, "Ensuring justice and compensation for Shahidul Islam's death will be a huge test for Bangladesh as the world watches. A labour leader's murder is a disturbing setback for workers' freedoms to organize and to seek the support of union leaders to solve labour disputes."

According to the First Information Report reviewed by Human Rights Watch, Shahidul Islam went to Prince Jacquard Sweater Ltd. on June 25 to demand two months of unpaid wages and a bonus for the Eid holiday. The report states that a gang of men attacked him and three other organisers outside the factory, abusing him for demanding wages as they brutally beat him. Despite the factory's managing director denying any connection to the attack, the Human Rights Watch emphasized the need to hold all those involved accountable.

The murder of Shahidul Islam follows a disturbing pattern of targeted attacks against labour organisers in Bangladesh. In 2012, another garment union leader, Aminul Islam, was similarly murdered after attempting to resolve a labour dispute. Despite promises of a high-level speedy investigation, there has been little progress in solving his case. 

The Human Rights Watch called on the authorities to conduct an independent investigation into Islam's murder with the technical assistance of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights. The factory management must also resolve workers' concerns regarding unpaid wages promptly. Furthermore, buyers have a crucial role in preventing labour abuses by adopting fair purchasing practices and ensuring timely payments to factories.

The European Union's proposed legislation on corporate sustainability due diligence should include requirements for workers' freedom of association and fair purchasing practices in global supply chains. Bangladesh, the largest beneficiary of the EU's "Everything But Arms" arrangement, is expected to graduate out of that category by the end of 2026 and has expressed interest in the EU's Generalised System of Preferences plus system.

In response to the murder of Shahidul Islam and the ongoing concerns about human and labour rights in Bangladesh, the EU Commission should undertake a monitoring mission to the country as part of its enhanced engagement. Human Rights Watch also urges the EU Commission to demand a transparent and swift investigation into Islam's death, as well as the protection of workers' rights to assembly and association.

Meanwhile, The Sourcing Journal reported that the murder has sparked further protests in Bangladesh. Several hundred garment workers and labour campaigners took to the streets of Dhaka in the days following the attack. Shahidul Islam, aged 50, was well-respected and had spent the past 25 years assisting workers in recovering owed wages and severance payments. Kalpona Akter, who co-founded the organisation to which Islam belonged, spoke emotionally about his fearlessness and dedication to workers' rights.

The attack on Islam and his colleagues, Mustafa Kamal, 26, and Ahmed Sharif, 35, occurred during a meeting with the management of Prince Jacquard Sweater. A dispute over the timing of wage payments led to a standoff, and upon leaving the meeting, the union leaders were violently attacked by a group of individuals. Kalpona Akter recalled hearing someone say, "Until you punish them, they will be non-stop," indicating a possible motive behind the attack.

The murder of Islam has sent shockwaves through the labour movement in Bangladesh and underscores the urgent need for greater protection of workers' rights and accountability for such heinous acts.

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