The newspapers in Bangladesh fed us the party line. They declared that a "foreign body" had been provoking labor unrest in Bangladesh’s garment industry. Never mind that rising food prices and unpaid back wages have driven those who already live on the edge over the edge. The military government, faced with the fruits of its incompetence, has found the convenient foreign bogey man. The Daily Star tells us about this foreign hand:
Law enforcement agencies have confirmed that a foreign organisation and leaders of a section of garment workers were involved in provoking the recent unrest in garment factories in the city’s Mirpur area.
After investigation, an intelligence agency arrested Mehedi Hasan, Bangladesh representative of the Washington-based Workers Rights Consortium (WRC), at the Zia International Airport prior to his departure for Bangkok on January 24.
Court sources said Mehedi reportedly confessed to interrogators that he used to collect information about workers’ problems and send it by email to the WRC headquarters in Washington DC in the USA. He was also learnt to have disclosed that he incited garment workers to press for their demands and held several secret meetings with the leaders of a section of garment workers.
The Bangladesh military has arrested Mehedi Hasan, a man who works for Workers Rights Consortium (WRC). The job of WRC is to collect information about worker’s problems and report it to its affiliate schools. You see, WRC represents 178 American colleges and universities (including my alma mater, Vassar College) who buy garments from brands with factories in countries like Bangladesh. WRC defends the rights of garment workers against abuse. Its reports hold the garment factories’ feet to the fire. WRC’s affiliated colleges and universities use these reports to pressure garments companies to protect workers’ rights.
In short, the Bangladesh military has arrested a man and have accused him of doing his job. The Bangladesh military has discovered that a "foreign body" is working to improve the working conditions in Bangladesh’s garment industry. So they have put a stop to it.
Bangladesh generates much needed income from the garments business. According to the Associated Press, the garments industry brings in more than $10 billion a year from exports to mainly the United States and Europe. Arresting a worker who represents WRC for doing his job can only raise concerns amongst American buyers of Bangladeshi garments. There are reports already in the American media of such concerns:
A labor rights investigator was arrested by the Bangladeshi government, prompting U.S. companies to lobby for his release.
Mehedi Hasan, an employee of the Washington-based Workers Rights Consortium (WRC), was arrested Thursday, according to the organization. The WRC said yesterday that he was arrested in retaliation for his efforts to protect the rights of workers in factories that sell U.S. brands.
Gap Inc. spokeswoman Melissa Swanson said the company is "looking into this situation, working with appropriate authorities and local organizations, and we are hopeful for a prompt and just resolution," she said.
Kazi Shamsul Alam, commerce counselor at the Bangladeshi Embassy, said yesterday that he received calls from the WRC, Nike and Gap expressing concern, but did not know the charges on which Mr. Hasan was being held.
The report further adds that Mehedi Hasan had been under surveillance by Bangladesh’ military intelligence and one of his colleagues was also harassed at the airport:
WRC Executive Director Scott Nova said, "There have been thousands of political arrests [in Bangladesh] and numerous reports of physical mistreatment of prisoners. We just hope that the attention the arrest has got will provide Mr. Hasan with a level of protection."
Mr. Hasan’s role was to scrutinize factories and their treatment of workers in Dhaka, ensuring that clothing was not produced under sweatshop conditions. WRC monitors conditions for 178 universities and colleges that lend their brands to Nike and Gap.
The WRC said yesterday that another employee was detained at the airport and subjected to "aggressive interrogation" earlier this month, during which his interrogators made clear that both he and Mr. Hasan were under surveillance by the security forces.
Tonight Human Rights Watch issued a press release citing Mehedi Hasan’s arrest and calling on the Bangladesh military to stop harassing labor rights activists. According to the press release:
“The interim government is abusing its emergency powers to target individuals who are trying to protect workers’ rights in Bangladesh’s most important export industry,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “This should set off alarm bells among donors and governments who don’t seem to understand or care how the authorities are using the state of emergency to systematically suppress basic rights.”
In one year of emergency rule the Bangladesh military has presided over spiraling food prices, has tortured and killed its own citizens, has jailed nearly half a million people, has jailed students and professors, has created a climate of fear in the business community, and has now seen labor unrest in a key sector of the economy. Its fix to almost all problems has been to pull out the gun.
Today that gun points at Mehedi Hasan. However, behind him stand the millions in Bangladesh and around the world who say no to exploitation of workers, who believe in the right to a living wage, and who believe in humane working conditions. Behind him stand the foreign apparel brands that purchase Bangladeshi garments, the colleges and universities that buy those brands, and the organizations that ensure that human beings are not being treated inhumanely along the way. It seems to me that the Bangladesh military would serve Bangladesh, its people, and its economy best by putting down the gun.