Disasters Made in Bangladesh

Why Poor People Are Still Dying for Our Cheap T-Shirts

By James Pogue

On our next reporting trip, Zain and I went to visit the widow of a murdered labor activist named Aminul Islam. His case has become well known among Western activists and government officials, and I wanted to hear the story of someone who had tried to challenge the prevailing conditions in the industry. We drove 50 miles to the tiny village of Hijolhati, north of the capital, where Aminul had lived. Because of traffic, it took us three and a half hours to get there. On arrival, we went to the village bazaar to ask for directions to Aminul’s house. The man we asked turned out to be the imam at the mosque where Aminul had prayed. We told him why we’d come, and he said it was good we were there. “He was a righteous man,” he said, and he got into our car to show us the way. 

We drove half an hour down a dirt road, undoubtedly doing permanent damage to the suspension of our rented Corolla. The imam told us that Aminul, like lots of garment workers in the area, had commuted to work every day by the same route we were taking, except that he’d walked the dirt road to the bazaar and then hopped aboard a bus. This must have taken hours. 

Aminul’s house was a nondescript little barracks just like the ones we had toured in Tazreen. His widow’s name is Hosni Ara Begum Fahima. She seemed resigned to have to talk to us, because I was foreign and Zain is upper class, but the imam told her he wanted her to speak with us. Zain and I sat on her bed, the same one she’d presumably shared with her husband. She spoke without a hint of enthusiasm, relaying Aminul’s story. 

In 1998, Aminul had brought Hosni and their daughter to Hijolhati from the Sherpur District, about 100 miles to the north, because he wanted a job in the garment business. At the factory where he found work he was elected president of a workers’ association; as president, he was pushed into confronting the factory management on wages and safety. When he was fired for his activism, he sued the factory owner and won, but instead of reinstating him, the owner locked him out of the factory and just continued to pay him a monthly salary. He eventually drew the attention of the Solidarity Center, an AFL-CIO-sponsored labor rights group in Dhaka, which put him in touch with local activists. He was hired at a Bangladeshi NGO. 

“After that, the village policemen would come,” his widow said. “They went around and asked people what sort of person he was, and they all said, ‘He’s a good man.’ And then they’d come here and threaten to drag him away.” 

In March 2010, Aminul was picked up by the police. “He was in Dhaka for a meeting,” Hosni said. “I got a phone call from somebody claiming to be a garments worker. I didn’t realize it might be the police, so I told him Aminul was at a meeting.” Officers raided the office and took him to Mymensingh, a town 80 miles to the north. “They beat him so badly. But after that he said he was hungry and he wanted to eat some fruit,” she said. The agents took him to a fruit stand. “They were standing to the side, smoking cigarettes. He was hurt, but he ran off and caught a train.” 

Later, I spoke with someone who’d had reason to see the inside of an NSI torture chamber: “There were all the hooks and chains for hanging people—whips and things like that. What you would expect. And then over to the side, I saw this stove with eggs on it. And I asked, ‘Why do you have eggs in a torture chamber?’ And [the attendant] said: ‘Oh, those aren’t real eggs, they’re rubber. We heat them on the stove and stick them up people’s anuses.’”

From the train, Aminul called his wife to tell her that he was safe. “But I think the phones were tapped,” she said, “because when the train reached the station, the police were there waiting.” Aminul spotted the authorities and sneaked off to a rear car. He borrowed a shopkeeper’s phone to call an activist friend. They later escaped via motorcycle. “After that, he spent a week in the hospital. He asked, when they beat him, ‘Why are you doing this to me? Was it a garments owner?’ They didn’t say anything—they just beat him up.”

After this—and another arrest, this time by the Industrial Police—Aminul told his wife he was considering giving up activism and becoming a shopkeeper. But he never got the chance. On April 4, 2012, a man named Mustafiz, a friend of the family, came to visit Aminul at his office in Ashulia. Mustafiz said that he wanted to get married but needed a witness to do so. Aminul did these things for garment workers all the time, but he was confused by Mustafiz’s request. He stalled. Mustafiz insisted. Aminul went. Pictures would later surface of Mustafiz in the company of NSI agents. The night Aminul disappeared, Mustafiz’s house was emptied, the door locked, his cell phone turned off. Days later, a notice ran in a paper from Tangail, 100 miles east of Dhaka, bearing a picture of an unidentified corpse found in the area. The local police had buried it in a pauper’s grave. The body was later found to be Aminul’s.

I asked Zain to ask Hosni to pose for a few photos. She complied passively and silently. I asked him to ask her to pose for some shots outside. Again, she sheepishly agreed. Afterward, she showed us some laminated pictures of Aminul’s body; you could see where a hole had been drilled into his right knee, likely the result of torture.

Were garment factory owners involved in his killing? The government? Several people would later pass along to me the name and cell-phone number of an NSI agent allegedly involved in Aminul’s abduction. Bangladesh sometimes seems like it’s short on names, but it was still almost unbelievable that the name of the agent was also Aminul Islam. I was told he had recently been transferred to the remote southwest of the country. I called the number seven or eight times, but I only got an answer the first time. Zain translated: “What do you want with Aminul Islam?” the man on the other end of the phone said, and then he hung up.