Bangladesh: Labor Activist Killed


(Brussels) – Bangladesh authorities should ensure an independent and transparent investigation into the murder of union leader, Shahidul Islam, Human Rights Watch said today. Islam, who was president of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation Gazipur district committee, was beaten to death on June 25, 2023, after he visited a factory in Gazipur to secure unpaid wages for the factory’s workers.


The Bangladesh government is yet to act comprehensively to end continuing violations of garment workers’ rights, including anti-union tactics by managers and assaults on union organizers, Human Rights Watch said. The United States and European Union have both linked Bangladesh’s continued access to trade preferences to making urgent improvements in labor rights and workplace safety.

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

The First Information Report recorded by the police, which Human Rights Watch reviewed, said that Islam went to Prince Jacquard Sweater Ltd. on June 25, 2023, to urge management to provide workers with two months of unpaid wages and a bonus for the Eid holiday. The report states that after Islam announced that workers would go to the local Directorate of Inspection of Factories and Establishments office to demand their wages, a gang of men pulled him and three other organizers outside the factory and began beating him. According to the report, the attackers berated him for demanding wages as they kicked and punched him until he was unconscious. Islam was taken to a nearby hospital, where he was declared dead later that night.

The managing director at the factory denied any connection with the attack, telling the media that “The incident did not happen near the factory premises.” All those found to be involved should be held to account, Human Rights Watch said.

On June 26, 2023, the day after Islam was murdered, the president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, Faruque Hassan, met with Charles Whiteley, head of the EU delegation to Bangladesh and claimed during the meeting that Bangladesh has made progress on workers’ rights in the ready-made garment industry.

He asked for a three-year extension of Bangladesh’s trade preferences under the EU’s Generalized Scheme of Preferences (GSP). The EU should view Islam’s murder as an indication of the state of workers’ rights in Bangladesh as it considers the government’s request to extend duty-free access to the EU market, Human Rights Watch said.

The murder follows a pattern of targeted attacks against labor organizers in Bangladesh and will have a chilling effect on the already severely constrained labor movement. On April 4, 2012, another garment union leader, Aminul Islam, then 39, disappeared after trying to resolve a similar dispute. His body was found two days later, almost 100 kilometers from where he was last seen, and showed signs of torture. Over a decade later, the authorities have failed to make measurable progress in investigating his death, despite pledges to conduct a high-level speedy investigation.

The authorities should undertake an independent investigation into Islam’s murder with technical assistance from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights to ensure that it is timely, independent, and complies with international investigation and fair trial standards, Human Rights Watch said.

The factory management should ensure that workers’ concerns regarding unpaid wages are fully resolved in a timely manner. According to customs data, the factory exported apparel to various companies including Global Fashion Icon, R. D. International Style Collections Ltd., N P New Yorker Fashion Logistics International, and Gruppo Importatori Tessili S.p.A. If they have not already done so, all buyers who have placed orders with the factory should review their purchasing practices, including payment terms, to ensure they are fair and expedite payments to the factory.

More broadly, buyers have an important role in preventing and mitigating labor abuses, including wage disputes between factories and their workers, by adopting fair purchasing practices, Human Rights Watch said. Human Rights Watch and other organizations have repeatedly shown that unfair purchasing prices and other payment terms can fuel labor abuses in factories.

The EU’s proposed legislation on corporate sustainability due diligence should require brands and retailers, including small- and medium-sized companies, to conduct human rights due diligence. This should include appropriate requirements for workers’ freedom of association in their global supply chains as well as brands and retailers’ purchasing practices to prevent and mitigate causing or contributing to labor abuses, Human Rights Watch said.

Bangladesh is the main beneficiary of the EU’s “Everything But Arms” (EBA) arrangement, one of the three programs under the GSP system that grants tariff-free export to the EU market to the least developed countries. Bangladesh is expected to graduate out of that category by the end of 2026 and has already expressed interest in applying for the EU’s Generalized System of Preferences plus system, which has more stringent human and labor rights requirements than the EBA.

Bangladesh is currently under “Enhanced Engagement” by the EU Commission “due to concerns with the country’s overall adherence to human and labor rights.” The EU Commission should undertake a monitoring mission to Bangladesh as part of its enhanced engagement with the country, Human Rights Watch said. The EU Commission should also urgently and vocally request the Bangladesh government to report on how it is ensuring a transparent and swift investigation into Islam’s death, and ensuring that workers are able to freely exercise their rights to assembly and association.

“Islam’s murder is the latest, outrageous development in a pattern of growing repression in Bangladesh and should not be tolerated,” Francavilla said. “The EU should use its major trade leverage to demand justice, lay out consequences if Bangladesh authorities fail to reverse their abusive trend.”