Silver threads, frayed seams

Until

Off to work, Mirpur, Dhaka. September 12, 2012. Photo ? AM Ahad
Off to work, Mirpur, Dhaka. September 12, 2012. Photo ? AM Ahad

Continue reading “Silver threads, frayed seams”

The human price

Horrific Fire Revealed a Gap in Safety for Global Brands

By Jim Yardley The New York Times

Wal-Mart Nixed Paying Bangladesh Suppliers to Fight Fire

By Renee Dudley & Arun Devnath – Dec 5, 2012 Bloomberg

Abir Abdullah
People try to put out a fire at Sir Denim Limited garment factory in Mollartek, Dokkinkhan, outside Dhaka, Bangladesh, on Nov. 26, 2012.

At a meeting convened in 2011 to boost safety at Bangladesh garment factories, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT) made a call: paying suppliers more to help them upgrade their manufacturing facilities was too costly. 

Low cost jeans are displayed at a discount clothing store in New York City. Photographer: Spencer Platt/Getty Images

The comments from a Wal-Mart sourcing director appear in minutes of the meeting, which was attended by more than a dozen retailers including Gap Inc. (GPS), Target Corp. and JC Penney Co. Continue reading “Wal-Mart Nixed Paying Bangladesh Suppliers to Fight Fire”

A Struggle From Dawn to Dusk

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By?ANDREA RICE

Photographs by Taslima Akhter


Lens - Photography, Video, and Visual Journalism

The garment industry is one of the?largest industrial sectors in Bangladesh. It accounts for a good portion of the country?s exports and employs more than three million workers. Most of them are women.
?Workers toil from dawn to dusk on minimum wage,? said?Taslima Akhter, a Bangladeshi photographer who has spent more than four years capturing the workers? movement for ?The Life and Struggle of Garment Workers.?
Ms. Akhter, 37, was compelled to bring to light some of the industry?s darker aspects, like dangerous working conditions and low salaries. As an activist, a photographer and a resident of Bangladesh, she sees the ongoing project as both a personal agenda and a civic duty.
Ms. Akhter said she believed that the struggle of garment workers ? particularly women ? was one of the country?s most pressing issues. A transition to democracy in Bangladesh would raise questions about women?s rights, she said, expressing hope that her project could help speed the country toward that goal? ? and inspire the workers to make their own voices be heard.
In 2006, garment workers in Bangladesh made less than $25 per month, Ms. Akhter said. Following a tremendous protest in 2010, their wages increased to just under $45 monthly ? still not a living wage.
That strike ? and the number of women who participated ? drove Ms. Akhter to continue her work on the project, most of which she photographed in and around her hometown, Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. (Outside Dhaka, she shot in Gazipur, to the north, and Narayanganj, to the east.) Ms. Akhter studied photojournalism at the?Pathshala South Asian Media Academy in Dhaka in 2007. She completed a master?s degree in philosophy from theUniversity of Dhaka. She just completed a six-week course on photography and human rights at New York University?s?Tisch School of the Arts as part of a?Magnum Foundation scholarship she was awarded in 2010.

LIVING WAGES FOR GARMENT WORKERS

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Moshrefa Mishu,?illegally arrested and remanded.


By Rahnuma Ahmed

Labour rights leader Moshrefa Mishu is being escorted to the court in Dhaka on Sunday. ? New Age photo

I have known Moshrefa Mishu for the last 25 years.
Since the mid-1980s when the two of us had participated in long and intense discussions with other representatives of both large womens organisations and small womens groups, when we were trying to work out the possibility of forming a broad-based and united platform to collectively struggle and further the interests of women.
In the early hours of 14 December 2010, Mishu, who is the president of Garment Workers Unity Forum, was picked up from her house in Kola Bagan, Dhaka, by a contingent of a dozen or so in plainclothes (excepting one). They claimed to belong to the Detective Branch. They did not have an arrest warrant. Please remember that, as you read along.
She was produced in the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate’s (CMM) court after midday. Police sought a 10-day remand, the magistrate granted 2 days. She was accused of inciting garment workers at Kuril who were, according to news reports, demonstrating for payment of wages according to the new pay scale agreed upon by the government and factory-owners in August 2011. Demonstrating for, not against, and mind you, the government was a party to the agreement. Does it not strike you as strange that workers should have to demonstrate and picket, and to press for demands which are in effect, also the government’s demands? (workers had unwillingly agreed to the new wages because it fell far short of their demand for 5,000 taka as minimum wage, not the 3,000 taka which was agreed upon, which has been termed `poverty wages’). Workers at Kuril alleged that the management was not following the new wage board, it had added only 500 taka to each worker’s wage. Remember Kuril too, because I’ll come back to this later. Instead of imprisoning garment workers and their leaders, one would have thought government officials and factory-owners would be arrested for not complying with the wage board’s settlement.
She was remanded again, for 1 day, on December 17. The police added another allegation to their previous list, Mishu had been seen in the company of a Jamaat leader, travelling in his car. Where? When? Not surprisingly, the police could not substantiate their allegations, they could only insist that it needed to be investigated.
Mishu was produced in CMM court for the third time on December 19, afternoon. I was among a group of activists (university teachers, writers and a lawyer) who had gone there to express our moral support for Mishu. Only Sadia Arman among us was allowed to enter the courtroom as she’s a lawyer. She spoke to Mishu who sat in a bench at the back, with women police on either side. She was breathing with great difficulty, gasping for air as she spoke. She told Sadia that short of beating her, the DB police had tortured her in every possible manner. When Sadia asked her about the allegations against her, Mishu said, she had not been in Kuril but in Narsingdi, she had returned to Dhaka on 12th night, had been exhausted and had declined to attend programmes till December 16. She did not know why she had been arrested, they had not told her anything. Please note that the protests at Kuril occurred on 12th morning and that the allegations against her are not, according to the laws of the land, worthy of a remand.
We caught a glimpse of Mishu as she left the courtroom heavily surrounded by police. I watched a young policewoman flash a smile as she said confidently, oh, there’s nothing wrong with her. She’s fine. As we turned the corner of the courtroom and stood above on the landing, we watched Mishu climb down the stairs assisted by policewomen. We could clearly see that she was unable to walk by herself. I remembered an Indian feminist friend’s excitement when Sheikh Hasina appointed Sahara Khatun as the minister for home affairs. I had not been similarly excited. The proof of the pudding is in the eating, I thought.
Mishu’s breathing difficulties increased, she had to be hospitalised immediately. She was taken to the National Hospital first, where the doctors gave her a nebuliser and oxygen. Her back pain — from a spinal injury, the result of an attempt on her life several years ago which had been staged to appear as a road accident — increased tremendously. While she had entered the hospital sitting in a wheelchair, she had to be carried out on a stretcher. She was referred to the Post Graduate hospital where doctors provided further oxygen, she was then referred to the Dhaka Medical College Hospital. She lies in a `bed’ there, in a womens ward, hastily put together on the floor, as there were no vacant beds. Police surround her bed, both men and women, causing immense distress and embarassment to both Mishu and other patients, many of whom are confined to their bed and having to use bedpans for urinary and fecal discharges.
What induced this? Mishu was without medicine for more than 24 hours, the contingent who had gone to pick her up had only permitted her to change her clothes. Despite being a chronic asthma patient, she was forced to lie on the cold floor of the DB Headquarters with only a thin blanket to lie on, and a thin quilt as cover. By the time her sister was allowed to drop her medicine at DB Headquarters, she was already very ill,
the nebuliser was unable to provide any relief. She would have preferred a prison, she told her sister, as she would at least have some hours to herself, at the DB HQ she was interrogated at all odd hours, both during the day and at night.
What is equally worrying is that officials at the DB headquarters had told her sister before the court hearing on December 19, don’t worry, we’ll provide her with some hot water tomorrow so that she can take a bath. How could they have been so sure that their prayer for a remand would be granted? Is unseen pressure being applied by the government on the judicial process?
`First they asked for an end to slavery....'

A garment worker had explained to a Reuters correspondent that the reason for protesting was “because [the new wages are] too inadequate to make ends meet. We cannot submit to the [whims] of the government and factory owners.” Another had said, “We work to survive but….commodity prices are going up and we cannot even arrange basic needs with our meagre income. The 3,000 taka will be barely enough to buy food for my six-member family. How can I pay for medicines, the education of my children and other needs?” Nurul Kabir, the editor of this paper, in a talk show on a private TV channel the night Mishu was arrested, had said, he would like to give factory owners Tk 3,000 per month, for a period of three months, and would like to see how they managed to live on this meagre amount. I agree with him, I think such an exercise, conducted publicly, with daily updates, would prove to be tremendously educational.
Or, one could reverse what the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci, imprisoned from 1926-1937 (the prosecutor had said at his trial “for 20 years we must stop this brain from functioning”), had written to a family member, from prison: “tell me what the following categories of people eat in a week: a family of,

  1. day labourers
  2. sharecroppers
  3. small farmers who work their own land
  4. shepherds whose flocks are a full-time occupation
  5. craftsmen (cobblers or blacksmiths)

Questions: how many times do they eat meat in a week, and how much? Or alternatively, do they just go without? What do they use to make soup? How much oil or fat do they put in, how much pasta, how many vegetables etc.? How much corn do they grind, and how many loaves of bread do they buy? How much coffee or coffee substitute, how much sugar? How much milk for the children etc.?”
Reversing Gramsci’s questions would mean that I would like to know how many times a week the owners of garment and knitwear factories?those who receive orders, and deliver supplies to Wal-mart, Marks & Spencer, Carrefour, Tesco, JC Penny, H&M, Gap?eat meat, how much oil and butter they consume, how much rice, what quality, how much coffee and beverages they drink, how much they spend on medicine and health, on their childrens education, on holidays, and all other personal and familial needs. I would also like to know how much they contribute, both directly and indirectly, to the election funds of political parties.
At her first court hearing, Mishu had stood in the dock and had asked, `Am I a common criminal that I should have to be handcuffed like this?’
No Mishu, neither you, nor other labour leaders, nor workers demonstrating for living wages, none of you are criminals. Those denying living wages to garment workers, are. It is they who are criminals. Your struggles serve to expose them for what they really are underneath their smooth and slick smiles, their expensive clothes. Petty, miserable, brutal. The real criminals.
Published in New Age, Tuesday December 21, 2010
Support campaign for release of Moshrefa Mishu

The Story of May Day

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May 1, 2009 | Issue 695
Engraving of the scene at Haymarket Square in 1886
“THERE WILL be a time when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today.” Those were the last words of August Spies, one of four innocent men executed for an explosion at Chicago’s Haymarket Square in May 1886.
The real “crime” for which Spies and his comrades were condemned was being labor militants fighting for workers’ rights and the eight-hour day. The national strike for the eight-hour day that they organized was called for May 1, 1886–it was the first May Day.
Their struggle, and the struggle of thousands alongside them, convinced a generation of labor militants and radicals to devote their lives for the fight for workers’ rights and for socialism.
Still, although May Day was founded to honor a U.S. labor struggle, few workers in this country typically know its origin, because the history is largely untold. This has changed, however–since the mass immigrant workers’ May Day marches that began in 2006.
A couple years ago, I was on a city bus and saw this notice: “Riders of the Pulaski bus may experience delays due to International Workers’ Parade on May 1.” I thought at the time, May Day has finally come home.
What else to read
To find out more about the Haymarket Martyrs, read James Green’s excellent book Death in the Haymarket. Also check out The Autobiographies of the Haymarket Martyrs.
Sharon Smith’s Subterranean Fire: A History of Working-Class Radicalism in the United States is an excellent introduction to the class struggles that have shaped U.S. history.
U.S. LABOR history is filled with examples of the employers’ willingness to use any weapon in their arsenal–from the courts to police billy clubs to the gallows–to put down working-class rebellion. But the fight for the eight-hour day in the 1880s also shows workers’ determination to resist–and the leading role that left-wing ideas can play in the struggle.
The eight-hour movement began in 1884 when the Federation of Organized Trades and Labor Unions (the predecessor to the American Federation of Labor) passed a resolution at its Chicago convention that “eight hours shall constitute a legal day’s labor from and after May 1, 1886.”
Past attempts to win limits on the workday had achieved few concrete results. By the 1870s, several states and a number of cities had passed eight-hour legislation, but these laws were largely ignored by employers. Under the influence of a growing socialist movement, labor leaders called for more militant action–that workers should strike to win their demands. Unions and labor assemblies across the country committed themselves to “a massive work stoppage” to begin on May 1.
Featured at Socialism 2009
Hear Elizabeth Schulte at Socialism 2009 in Chicago, speaking on “How Eugene Debs Became a Socialist.” Check out the Socialism 2009 Web site for more details. See you at Socialism!
The eight-hour demand spoke to workers frustrated with 14- to 18-hour workdays amid high unemployment. Workers supported the demand by wearing “eight-hour shoes,” smoking “eight-hour tobacco” and singing the “eight-hour song,” which ended with the lines:
We want to feel the sunshine; we want to smell the flowers;
We’re sure that God has willed it, and we mean to have eight hours.
We’re summoning our forces from shipyard, shop and mill:
Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, and eight hours for what we will.
On May 1, 1886, some 190,000 workers struck around the country, and 150,000 more won their demand for an eight-hour day simply by threatening to strike.
Chicago was a key center of the battle. According to Sidney Lens’ The Labor Wars, by May 1, 1886, 45,000 workers–35,000 of them in the packinghouses–had won a shorter workday, compared to a national figure of 12,000.
It was no coincidence that Chicago was also the heart of the left wing of the movement. Several socialist publications were based in Chicago, include foreign-language newspapers like the German Daily Arbeiter-Zeitung, edited by August Spies. Socialist club meetings were held around the city to discuss politics, and there were even alternative Sunday schools for children.
Leading members of the anarchist International Working People’s Association (IWPA) like Spies and Albert Parsons organized in Chicago, where the IWPA was the strongest nationally. They planned events that captured the angry mood of workers, organizing parades that would march on the Board of Trade or down Prairie Avenue where the wealthy lived, singing the “Marseillaise” and carrying red flags.
Spies and Parsons had convinced the IWPA to organize inside the union movement–and had built a following among Chicago workers.
They faced well-organized opposition from the employers, who were backed up by the media and the brutal Chicago cops. Newspaper articles decried the eight-hour day as “Communism, lurid and rampant” that would bring on “loafing and gambling…debauchery and drunkenness.”
An editorial in the Chicago Mail singled out Parsons and Spies: “There are two dangerous ruffians at large in this city; two skulking cowards who are trying to create trouble. One of them is named Parsons; the other is named Spies…Make an example of them if trouble does occur.”
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –
ON MAY 3, lumber workers who were on strike for the eight-hour day were attending a meeting near the McCormick Reaper Works on the south side of the city, where 1,400 workers had been locked out since February and replaced by 300 scabs. When they went to confront the scabs at McCormick, the workers were attacked by some 200 police. Four workers were killed and many others injured. The attacks continued into the following day, with police breaking up gatherings of workers.
Strike leaders called for a protest against police violence the following evening. Some 3,000 workers gathered in Haymarket Square, the center of the meatpacking business.
By the end of the evening, the rally had dwindled to a few hundred because of rain–when about 200 armed police marched into the peaceful crowd.
Someone–whose identity is still unknown–threw a bomb into the ranks of the police, killing seven and injuring dozens.
The government used the incident as an excuse to crack down on the entire labor movement in a reign of terror that lasted for days. Workers’ homes, meeting halls and newspaper offices were raided, and anyone affiliated with the anarchist, labor or socialist movement was hauled to jail. When the police were done, they had blamed the bombing on eight men–all leaders of the eight-hour movement.
The eight were Parsons, Spies, Michael Schwab, Samuel Fielden, Adolph Fischer, George Engel, Oscar Neebe and Louis Lingg. Parsons and Spies weren’t even in the square when the bomb was thrown, but that mattered little at their trial. In Judge Joseph Gary’s courtroom, they were already guilty because of their political beliefs.
“Law is on trial. Anarchy is on trial,” declared prosecutor Julius Grinnel in his summation to the jury. “These men have been selected, picked out by the grand jury, and indicted because they are the leaders. They are no more guilty than the thousands who follow them. Convict these men, make examples of them, hang them, and you save our institutions, our society.”
All the defendants except Neebe, who was given 15 years in prison, were sentenced to death. As national attention focused on the trial, sympathy and solidarity for the Haymarket Eight grew, with protests taking place around the country and the world against the injustice of the verdict. Labor activist Lucy Parsons, who was also married to Albert Parsons, led the fight in the U.S., and well-known socialists and radicals like Eleanor Marx, William Morris, Oscar Wilde and Friedrich Engels lent their names to the campaign overseas.
The governor of Illinois was forced to later commute Fielden’s and Schwab’s sentences to life in prison, and Lingg committed suicide the day before he was scheduled to hang. Some half a million workers lined Chicago’s Milwaukee Avenue on November 13, 1887, as the funeral procession for the Martyrs wound its way to the railway station for the trip to Waldheim Cemetery.
Outrageously, the city commemorated the Haymarket Square bombing with a statue of a police officer–which finally had to be removed after countless acts of vandalism.
The fight for the eight-hour day and the case of the Haymarket Martyrs transformed revolutionaries and labor militants who would help shape the labor struggles to come–people like Eugene Debs, Big Bill Haywood and, of course, Lucy Parsons.
As Spies said before he was executed:
If you think that by hanging us, you can stamp out the labor movement…the movement from which the downtrodden millions, the millions who toil in want and misery expect salvation–if this is your opinion, then hang us! Here you will tread upon a spark, but there and there, behind you and in front of you, and everywhere, flames blaze up. It is a subterranean fire. You cannot put it out.

?The best years of my life?. Or, remittances earned

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Rahnuma Ahmed

Amar jiboner sreshtho shomoita dilam. Amar joubon amake ke phirie debe?
(I gave the best years of my life. Who will give me back my youth?)
A Bangladeshi migrant. Paris, 2002.

Bangladeshi workers resting in between shifts in Maldives. ? Shahidul Alam / Drik / Majority World
Bangladeshi workers resting in between shifts in Maldives. ? Shahidul Alam / Drik / Majority World

?The best years?. Being treated like an animal

?I slept many nights beside the road and spent many days without food. It was a painful life. I could not explain that life,? these are the words of a Bangladeshi migrant worker who had gone to Saudi Arabia. He was speaking to Human Rights Watch researchers who spoke to other Bangladeshi migrants, also to migrants from India and the Philippines (Bad Dreams: Exploitation and Abuse of Migrant Workers in Saudi Arabia, 2004).
But not all migrant workers were abused, not all were exploited to their bones. Somewhere else, I read about Manzur Ali who first went to Saudi Arabia in 1982, and later again in 1999. His first employment is the stuff that migrants? dreams are made of. His Saudi employer bore the entire cost of his travels. He worked in a construction firm as a carpenter. His monthly earnings, including overtime, reached twelve to thirteen hundred riyals, in our currency, 21,000 to 23,000 taka. Food, housing and medical facilities were provided; also, a fifty-day annual leave. Manzur worked for three years, returned home and started a business. His second visit was disastrous. He had to pay a recruiting agency 80,000 taka. His monthly wages were not the promised 9,500 riyal, but only 650. He had to work three times harder than before, if he failed, he was physically tortured. Since his employer did not give him his resident permit, he was not allowed to go outside the firm premises. Eleven months later he escaped to Riyadh, and to a long spell of illegal work. Caught by the police, he was arrested and deported to Bangladesh six years later.
Contrary to common expectations, migrants who enter legally and comply with government regulations can also be cheated, overworked, underpaid, or not paid at all. Bangladeshi workers repairing underground water pipes in Tabuk municipality, Saudi Arabia, told HRW researchers that they were forced to work ten to twelve hours a day, sometimes throughout the night and without any overtime pay. They were not paid salaries for the first two months, and had to borrow money from other Bangladeshis to buy food. Another migrant, who worked as a butcher in Dammam, was forced to leave the kingdom by his employer with six months of his salary unpaid.
Women migrant workers spoke of torturous working conditions. Hundreds of low-paid Asian women, who worked as cleaners in Jeddah hospitals, had to work twelve-hour days, without any food or break. After work, they were confined to locked dormitories. Skilled seamstresses from the Philippines, who worked twelve-hour days, spoke of not being permitted to leave their workplace, of being forbidden to speak more than a few words to customers and the Saudi owners. A Filipina, who worked for a family in Dammam, was raped by her male employer. She spoke of her trauma, and how she was constantly on the lookout for the front gate to be unguarded, so that she could escape.
But not only cruel employers and unscrupulous middlemen are to be blamed. Flawed immigration policies and gaps in labour laws expose migrants to trafficking, forced labour and other terrible abuses. A twenty-three-year-old Indian tailor, while in police custody, was beaten for two days. On the third day, his interrogators gave him two pages handwritten in Arabic. He was to sign his name three times on each page. He said, ?I was so afraid that I did not dare ask what the papers were, or what was written on them.?
What words do South and East Asian migrant workers use to describe their migrant situation? I kept coming across metaphors of slavery, of being treated like animals. By their employers, by recruiting agents, and also by embassy officials. A Bangladeshi migrant working in a textile factory in Jordan detailed the physical and verbal abuse doled out by his employer: ?severe beating, verbal insults, threats of deportation and forcing them to sign blank documents?. He said, five people, including two women, had been beaten over the past two days, and added, ?They want us to work like slaves.? Widyaningsih, a 35-year-old Indonesian woman, a would-be migrant to Malaysia, described the conditions she had faced while being recruited in Indonesia: The broker brought me to the training centre in Tanjung Pinang by ship?. they deducted my full wages for four-and-a-half months [to repay what they said were up-front costs]?. I had to spend two months at the training centre. We were never allowed outside, there was a very high gate and it was always locked. They treated us poorly, always calling us names like ?dog?. And a Bangladeshi woman, a migrant worker who had recently returned from the Middle East, said, Bangladeshi embassy officials ignore us, they don?t even recognise our difficulties, ?They treat us like animals.?

Objectifying migrant workers

At home, in circles of power, migration is discussed in two basic ways: in a language of absence or ?lack?, and in the language of remittances. Never in the language of suffering, or pain, or dreams crushed, or accountability.
Men and women who go abroad as migrant workers are described in terms of what they lack, they lack education, they lack skills (at most, they are described as ?semi?-skilled). There are deeper connotations, they seem to be lacking culture, lacking the best of what the nation has to offer. They have only their labour, and that too, menial. Their presence, and what they bring back as personal belongings (blankets, TVs, camera, mobile phones, photo frames), packed tightly in mounds of carefully sewn luggage often give rise to patronising looks of their better-off compatriots at airports.
But what migrant workers send back are not sources of embarrassment. Remittances belong to the nation. I watch experts speak at seminars and conferences with a self-congratulatory air. Migrant remittances, they say, are the ?major source of national revenue?, they enhance ?national economic growth?, Bangladesh is ?a notable exporter of manpower?. I see experts look prophetically into the future, ?From its current position Bangladesh has to increase its remittance income by 25 per cent year on year to generate remittances income of approximately US$ 30 billion in 2015.?
Sometimes, I hear them sound alarm bells. We get told, ?The rise in remittance and overseas employment is on the verge of witnessing a downward trend?, ?The government target of reaching fresh overseas employments to nine lakh this year is also likely to fall flat?, ?We can?t feel the blow of the bans or cut in overseas employment immediately, but after two to three years remittance will definitely dry up if no major changes take place?.
Migrant men and women are objects to the nation?s goals. They are never spoken of as heroes.

Family ties

I sit and chat with Shireen Huq, an old friend, whose mother, poet Jaheda Khanum, passed away this March. I prod her gently, what was it khala used to say about class differences between migrant families and our families?
Well, says Shireen, she would look at her Dhanmondi neighbours, at their expatriate sons and daughters, those who are well-educated, in professions, who live abroad and insist that the family home in Dhanmondi be turned over to developers, because they need the money there. Actually someone we know quite well, he has never sent anything, in twenty long years, not a single cent. Not for his mother, or his brother, or his sister. But as I was saying, someone amma knew well, immediately after she died her children insisted that the land be sold, they need the dollars abroad. But another neighbour, her children exerted tremendous pressure on her, but can you imagine, she was still living, they said to her, go and live in a small flat. We need the dollars now. I mean, they didn?t wait, they couldn?t wait for her to pass away. And amma, she would compare them with young migrant men she met in New York, she went there once, she would say, they turn their blood into water to send money to their families in Bangladesh. And then she would say, people of our class are paying for their economic and social mobility.
As I write, I grieve for Bahraini fashion designer Sana Al Jalahma, murdered in August 2006, and Mizan Noor Al Rahman Ayoub Mia, who worked for the family, and was accused and convicted of the murder. Mizan was executed by a firing squad early June 4, 2008.
Two lives lost. Lives, and losses, that are difficult to explain.
First published in New Age on Monday 9th June 2008
Film on migration: In Search of the shade of the Banyan Tree
Website on migration:Migrant Soul

Keeping the lamp lit

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The newly appointed education adviser has my sympathy. He had spoken the truth. With scandals emerging about departing advisers, and accusations flying about the gross incompetence of the ‘PhD’ government, he must have felt the need to demonstrate the character of the cabinet.
Having lost the Candy Man, we now have an adviser who is candid in his remarks. “Regardless of the verdict of the court, the teachers shall be freed, ” he had said. Great news for the teachers. Sad news for justice.
But the candor of the education advisor is unlikely to inspire confidence in the government. He might equally have said, “regardless of the verdict of the court, we shall find Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia guilty,” or any other convenient outcome for the many flimsy cases against politicians, business people, students or any other member of the public. The fact that the government finds the judicial system irrelevant, while confirming people’s fears, does do away with their flicker of hope for justice. This was a lamp that needed to stay lit.
The anniversary party could have done without the media gatecrashers. The weeks leading up to the 11th January 2008, have been particularly difficult for the government. In August, it had taken violent protest by the students for the military presence in campus to be removed, but it is the fallout of the government’s heavy-handed response that they now need to deal with. Having closed the 24 hour news channel CSB
kakoli-prodhan-csb-news-6.jpg 24 hour CSB News TV channel after its closure. Dhaka. Bangladesh. ? Kakoli Prodhan

and intimidated others with barely veiled threats, they had expected an easy ride. But they had reckoned without the spunk of Bangladeshi media. BTV has long since become irrelevant. Cheek in jowl, private channel media activists have found creative ways to get the news to the public, and an informed audience has responded. I remember the phone calls ‘from above’ that came in while a talk show was going on. The savvy presenter responding smartly toned down his own questions, letting me speak as I pleased. It was a live show, and he could hardly have been blamed for the words I was using. The phone calls to the editor, the ‘invitations to tea,’ and the physical presence of army personnel have made honest reporting a harrowing task, but the news programmes are alive and well, and while they have economic pressures, they retain a loyal following.
Even newspapers that had decided to ride in the comfort of the military train are having to make face-saving critiques of a government facing derailment. It is the government, which is on the back foot. CSB is still closed, but the phone in callers, the letter writers, the bloggers and the talk show speakers have joined in the fray. This is media at its best.
Amnesty’s Secretary General, Irene Khan, made up for her initial failure to denounce emergency rule, “Amnesty believes that the government can waive some of the restrictions, even under emergency rule.” The media again had set the tone. She was far more forthright in the latter stage of her visit and pointed to the ubiquitous presence of the military in all public spheres, clearly stating that military rule was unacceptable.
I could smell the stench of decomposed flesh as I walked up the stairway of the partially demolished Rangs Building.
side-view-of-collapse-0762.jpg
rangs-building-looking-up-0761.jpg
Loose concrete slabs and boulders still dangle precariously from the remaining metal rods of the Rangs Building. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
rangs-building-worker-0771.jpg Even in this unsafe condition, and while the body of a security guard is still buried under the rubble, workers remove rubble from the partially demolished Rangs Building. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
The Rajuk administrators were themselves scared to be there, but being government officials they had little choice. They pointed me to a staircase that was relatively safe. Workers, not having my benefit of class, climbed the more dangerous ones. I wonder how it feels to walk past a deceased colleague, past the stench, the rubble, past rickety columns. What is it like to know one’s death will only matter to one’s nearest ones.
Yesterday police turned their batons on garment workers demanding outstanding wages and fires yet again engulfed city slums.
fire-in-slum-in-rayer-bazar-1712-px-600.jpg Fire in Rayer Bazaar slum destroyed around 2500 homes. January 12 2008. ? Munir uz Zaman/DrikNews
sh-31.jpg Garment worker killed by collapse of factor building. ? Shehabuddin/Drik/Majority World
The recent deaths of other garment workers and general demands to receive an acceptable minimum wage, all point to the disengagement from the public of a caretaker government that has failed to care.
We are in need of honest answers, and while the new education adviser revealed the government’s complete disregard for the judiciary, I suspect his honesty was the unintended byproduct of yet another exercise in spin. If on the other hand, his admission of the irrelevance of the judiciary was the beginning of a process of transparency, unpleasant though the truth might be, I welcome it. Admission of guilt does not in itself solve the problem, but it does begin to address it. Something they have so far singularly failed to do. They have blamed the ills of the nation on politicians and political parties. On bad democracy. The people are in no illusion about the improprieties of the past. But bad democracy can only be replaced by good democracy. There is no such thing as good autocracy, and pliant front men, no matter who they are backed by, can never be an answer.

Remembering

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Recovering Memory. Recovering Dignity
It was 25th March, night. A Pakistani officer accompanied by soldiers entered their Dhaka University flat, dragged out Meghna’s father and and shot him. Jyotirmoy Guhathakurta was a well-known academic. He bled to death slowly, five days later. As he lay dying in Dhaka Medical College Hospital with a bullet wound in his neck, surrounded by doctors too scared to treat him, he repeatedly told Bashanti, his wife, you must write. Write what? History, he replied. But I don’t know how to write history. Well, write literature then.
meghnas-family-400-px.jpg Jyotirmay Guhathakurta and Basanti Guhathakurta with seven year old daughter, Meghna and nephew Kanti in Gandaria, Dhaka, 1966. Bangladesh. ? Bazle Mawla

I met Meghna in 1973, the year we started college. Later we went to Dhaka University together. As we became the closest of friends, I learnt that she would lie in bed each night and recollect the horror of that night in 1971. I would tell myself, I have to remember each incident, what happened, what followed. I must not let myself forget. Many years later, I remember asking her, “Megh, do you still do that? Re-collect each scene, each incident…?” “Yes, each night, after turning out the lights, I lie in bed and remember what happened, as it happened,” was her reply.
It is important to recover memories. To tell oneself that the world was not born this moment, to remind ourselves that we have long histories. Or else, says Uruguyan novelist Eduardo Galeano, we will become like the peoples of Chicago who do not know of the Haymarket martyrs, or that the First of May was born in Chicago. Galeano writes, Chicago has “deleted” the memory of International Workers Day, a day that is both a tragedy and a fiesta, a day celebrated the world over, one that affirms the right of the workers to organise. Our histories are both of betrayal, and dignity. We need to recover both.
The Gift of a Sewing Machine
Adivasi activist Choles Ritchil was returning from a wedding on March 18, 2007 when his microbus was stopped. He was arrested by half a dozen plainclothes men, and taken to Khakraid army camp. Choles, alongwith other Mandi families of Modhupur forest, were opposed to the eviction of 25,000 Mandi peoples from the forest through the government scheme (2003) to construct an eco-park. Despite Mandi opposition, Forest department officials began constructing a high wall that would section off 3,000 acres of forest land. In January 2004, police fired on peaceful Mandi protestors killing Piren Snal, and injuring 25 others. Public outrage at police brutality helped shelve eco-park plans, but Forestry officials later filed 20 false cases against the Mandis. Choles, widely-respected and prominent, was implicated in these cases.
choles-ritchil-portrait-noise-reduced.jpgCholes Ritchil. Photographer unknown

At Khakraid, Choles was tied to the grill of a window, and beaten mercilessly. Then his torture began. The next day, police officials handed over his dead body to relatives. In accordance with religious custom, his body was bathed before burial. Those who did so said that it bore horrific signs of mutilation. Photographs, hurriedly taken, serve to document the marks of torture.
body-of-choles-ritchil-b.jpg Mutilated body of Choles Ritchil. Photographer unknown
Nearly seven months later, on October 10, members of the Joint Forces arranged a small ceremony in the Tangail Upozilla office. Choles’ first wife Sandhya Rani Simsang was given cash, a sari and a sewing machine. His second wife Serpina Nokrek was also given cash, a sari and a sewing machine.
A sewing machine is said to signify connections. It connects the needle to the thread, stitches together separate pieces of cloth into a whole. But what does this sewing machine, born of torture and a mutilated body, connect? Mandi women’s eviction from the forest has also meant their eviction from indigenous traditions of weaving and sewing, traditions embedded in a matrilineal culture, says Pavel Partha*, an ethno-botanist and an impassioned researcher. The state has torn the lives of Mandi women away from Modhupur forest-which-is-their-culture. The extra-judicial killing of Choles Ritchil has torn to pieces the lives of Sandhya Rani, Serpina Nokrek, and their respective children. Tears that no sewing machine can repair.
They say torturers often wear hoods. They shy away from eye contact with their victims. A last vestige of humanity? Maybe. And if so, it certainly offers us crumbs of hope.
What happened at the Tangail gift-giving ceremony? Did the gift-givers look Sandhya and Serpina in the eye? How on earth did they get conscripted into the whole affair? Were they obliged to attend, to receive? Maybe those directly involved in Choles’ death were not present. After all, six army and civilian personnel, including Major Toufiq Elahi and Tangail Forest department official Abu Hanif Patwari were transferred soon after the death. A one person investigation committee consisting of a judge was also set up (has the report been completed, submitted? No one seems to know). The point I wish to make is that the institutional nexus — army camp, Forest department, thana, doctors, union council officials — within which Choles’ (and other adivasi) deaths have taken place, remains intact. That the gift-giving ceremony — an official event, funded by the public exchequer — took place within this nexus. The circumstances surrounding Choles Ritchil’s death is known to all, Mandi and Bengali alike. Pretences must have been necessary to pull off the ceremony. The presence of members of the Joint Forces, civilian administrators, elected representatives of the former goverment at the local level, professionals etc etc must have shored up those pretences.
I look forward to the Freedom of Information Act. I want to be able to read official files that contain an order to pick someone up. I want to know the language in which torture is camouflaged. I want to know the names of doctors who sign death certificates, the causes that are listed (death due to, surely not eyes plucked, testicles removed, anus mutilation, removal of fingernails). I want to know how Forest officials are able to construct false cases implicating those who protest against the injustice of eviction.
We need to know more about the rules of governance to weave tapestries of resistance across ethnic divides.
Rangs building: The death of cchotolok workers
Not all bodies have been recovered from the Rangs building. Not yet. Two or three remain. A faint smell of death, of decomposed flesh, still hangs over the fourth floor area.
The bodies of all Sidr cyclone victims have not been recovered either, one keeps coming across newspaper reports of a child’s body found in a paddyfield, a father’s body being identified by his son. But that, I feel, is different. Difference hinges partly on the word nature, a word, that I admit needs to be re-thought in the context of global warming since ‘natural’ disasters are no longer natural.
Rangs is a profoundly urban disaster. Compounded by the fact that the hapless workers who died come from villages, the stories that frame their migration, ‘they came to the city in search of work’ hide continued urban enrichment at the cost of villages. Images haunt me as I read what is written in the newspapers: it happened in five seconds, the roofs came tumbling down, they do not give us our dead, I cannot go off with my brother’s dead body, there are others from Modhukhali, their mothers and sisters and wives are waiting too. My two brothers got buried in the rubble. They are no longer alive. They must have died.
tanvir-rangs-road-sweeper-4696-600-px.jpg Cleaners clearing debris outside the Rangs Building to make way for traffic. Early hours of the morning. 8th December 2007. Dhaka. Bangladesh. ? Zaid Islam
tanvir-rangs-workers-by-fire-4912-600-px.jpg Demolition workers who have set up their own emergency team, warm themselves at night. 8th December 2007. Dhaka. Bangladesh. ? Zaid Islam
I piece together the names of the dead. The names are scattered. Some crop up in the newspapers when bodies found are identified: Amirul 26, Zillur 24. Farid Mian. In other places, names of missing relatives mentioned by surviving workers. There are so many: Farid Sheikh, Delwar Sheikh, Jiru Molla, Kaijar Molla, Jahid Molla, Ruhul Amin, Mannan Shikdar, Abdur Rahim Sheikh, Daud Munshi, Jiblu. They are mentioned in passing, as if attached to bodies, to morgue identifications. A few days later, some more names. Some missing have now been found dead: Farid Mian 26, Zero Molla 25, Kaiser Molla 26, Mannan Sikder 35, Daud Munshi. A day later, another name, Abdur Rahim. Again very young, only twenty five. But, I think, what about Jahid, Jiblu, Firoj? A news item catches my eye: the Rangs group claims that security guard Shahid’s body is buried beneath the rubble. Four. It’s been nearly three and a half weeks now.
tanvir-rangs-5150-600-px.jpg The still fingers of an unidentified worker. The bodies of three demolition workers were found on the morning of the 9th December 2007. Rangs Building. Dhaka. Bangladesh. ? Zaid Islam
I cannot imagine the extent of the nightmare for family members who have been wandering about in the rubble of Rangs Bhaban, looking for traces of their beloved, maybe a pillow, the corner of a lungi, a shirt sleeve. Priscilla Raj, independent journalist, had written of an elderly, bearded man, standing outside Rangs, bitterly saying, “We are cchotolok, why should anyone bother?” He was right. No one did. There was no moddholok collective presence outside the building, no strong suport for Nirman Sromik Union’s demand that compensation for the dead be four lakh taka, not one. Dhaka’s moddholok, no doubt horror-struck, were witnesses to the disaster from a distance made safe by television and print media. I myself and many others were outside the National Museum. We were protesting archaeological artifacts being sent to Guimet. Those who joined in the wake outside the Rangs building were people like those dead or missing, part of the urban dispossessed. They witnessed grief at close quarters.
In this city’s landscape, the history of Rangs workers will be one of dignity. And ours that of betrayal.
Rahnuma Ahmed
New Age. 2nd January 2008
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*Pavel Partha, “Odhipoti Shelai Machine O Fali Fali Shalbon” (A Dominant Sewing Machine and Rows of Shal Trees), unpublished.