Taslima Akhter's photo in Time top 10 of 2013

Taslima Akhter
Taslima Akhter. Savar Dhaka, Bangladesh. April 24, 2013.
April 24, 2013, still remains fresh in my memory. At 9 AM when I got the news, I rushed to Rana Plaza. That morning I did not understand what a brutal thing had happened, but within hours I grasped the enormity and horror of it. The day passed with many people helping survivors and taking photos. At midnight there were still many people. I saw the frightened eyes of the relatives. Some were crying. Some were looking for their loved ones. Continue reading “Taslima Akhter's photo in Time top 10 of 2013”


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Malik-speak: Demonisation and Denial

By Rahnuma Ahmed

I don’t think anyone gets taken in by what they say. No, not any longer.
Not unexpected, for after all, how long can one spin the same old story and expect people to fall for it. Day after day. Year after year.
Even prime minister Sheikh Hasina had sounded exasperated. Factory owners, she said, give garment workers “not only insufficient but also inhuman” wages.
Coming from someone who heads a government which, as Shahidullah Chowdhury, president, Bangladesh Trade Union Centre, points out, is “essentially biased” towards protecting and promoting the interests of the rich (like all previous governments in Bangladesh), her comment is quite revealing.
Industry leaders, of course, had a fit. Labour unions had demanded 5-6,000 taka, owners grudgingly agreed to 3,000 taka. Far below living wages. But as Anisul Huq, former head of BGMEA (Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association), a factory owner whose clients include H&M and Wal-Mart, ruefully told the New York Times, ?If it?s 5,000 taka, I would close all my factories.? He added, ?Even if it?s 3,000 taka, lots of factories will close within three or four months? (July 16, 2010).
One cannot, of course, deny that the government needs to take measures to strengthen Bangladesh’s most successful manufacturing industry which accounts for 80% of annual export earnings. For one, it needs to ensure uninterrupted power supply. Abdus Salam Murshedy, the head of BGMEA, in an attempt to convince workers to accept 1,969 taka as wages said last June, “We have been reeling under acute gas and power crisis, which has affected our productivity.” http://www.thefinancialexpress-bd.com/more.php?news_id=103553&date=2010-06-19
Second, it also needs to takes measures to bring down escalating food prices, as food inflation matters most to minimum wage garment workers. In May last year, rice prices went up by between 18% and 32%, according to the Trading Corporation of Bangladesh.
But in defiance of Bangladesh labour laws which dictate that wages should be reassessed and adjusted every three years, recent wage increases were awarded after 2006. After spilling blood. They have been dubbed “malnutrition” wages by some, “poverty” wages by others.
The acute shortage of electricity, insists B D Rahmatullah, former director general of the Power Cell (ministry of power, energy and mineral resources), is a “manufactured” crisis.?As a former insider, he should know; further, no one from the energy ministry has contested his allegation. One cannot help but ask, why would a government electorally committed to increasing and stabilising power generation, manufacture a crisis, much to the detriment of people’s, and industrial interests? WikiLeaks leaked Dhaka US Embassy cables incline me to suggest that the manufactured crisis is possibly aimed at rallying public support for awarding oil, gas and coal contracts to foreign companies (People’s Resistance to Global Capital and Government Collaboration is Vindicated, New Age December 27, 2010).
As for the food crisis, according to the Election Manifesto of Bangladesh Awami League-2008, “commodity prices increased by 100 to 200 percent” during the BNP Jamaat alliance rule (2001-2007), the “infamous Hawa Bhaban” under the “leadership of the son of the [former] Prime Minister [Khaleda Zia]” patronised “criminal syndicates.”?All true, but although the ruling party has changed, although Hawa Bhaban which ran a “parallel government” no longer exists, food syndicates still do. Fourteen months after taking power, finance minister AMA Muhith declared, a “cartel or syndicate of traders” is responsible for price hikes of essentials including rice, that the government was “seeking ways and means to stabilise the market” (February 2010).
Six months later, it seems the government had stopped seeking ways and means, for as Muhith stated, government attempts to break up the syndicate had failed (August 12, 2010). http://www.bdnews24.com/details.php?id=170547&cid=2
It is obvious that the “rich” interests which the Awami League government protects and promotes extends not only to the garment sector but also to oil, gas, coal and food. That the government is committed to serving the interests of global and local capital. Not those of the majority. Not those who voted it to power.
It should also be obvious that the rich of one sector collude with the rich of another. At a reception in May 2008, accorded by the Chittagong Chamber of Commerce and Industry (CCCI) and BGMEA to the newly-elected office bearers of FBCCI, the apex chamber body, the newly-elected FBCCI president Anisul Huq and other business people, urged the government to take immediate steps for exploring coal and gas to overcome the energy crisis, to put an end to the debate on the coal policy, to go for open-pit coal mining (Daily Star, May 3, 2008).
Environmental activists say, the latter will lead to the forcible eviction of not 1,30,000 people as the government commissioned report claims, but ten times more, that it will wreck the environment. But those at the Chittagong reception seemed to shrug off these concerns, affected people could “easily be rehabilitated.”
“We are not blood-suckers,” he said excitedly, a young garment factory owner, whose name I’m afraid I couldn’t catch, he was on a talk show on a private TV channel, it was midway through, this was nearly 3 weeks ago. All this talk of “capitalism” and “exploitation” portrays us in a bad light. I refuse to listen to all this. I’ll walk out right now, he said, jerking his head toward what was presumably the studio door. While MM Akash, professor of economics, Dhaka University, sat silently grinning, while the anchor of the programme desperately tried to restore peace, I sat open-mouthed at the TV screen. Huh, and I’d thought all our drama queens belonged to the parliament.
Over the last few weeks, I have had the fortune to watch two other live TV programmes graced by factory-owners. I didn’t know whether to laugh or to cry when I heard AK Azad, president of FBCCI, chairman of Ha-Meem Group, fifth largest clothing manufacturer in Bangladesh, a big supplier of readymade garments for Gap, whose That’s It Sportswear at Ashulia caught fire last December leading to the death of 23 workers,?insist that safety measures were meticuloulsy followed in his factories. There were regular fire drills but since they were `merely’ drills with no real fires, it had been difficult to foresee and prevent the deaths. Where on earth are real fires lit during drills?
And yes, both Azad, and later, in another TV programme, Anwar-Ul-Alam Chowdhury Parvez, former BGMEA president, owner of Evince Group, insisted (seemingly speaking from the same script), the new wage structure is being followed in their factories, in all other factories that they know of, to say otherwise is a smear campaign, out to malign the industry. They spoke in a voice of benevolence, their workers were happy, contented, well-looked after. Parvez got a bit carried away, I never fail to address them as my children, I call them baba, ma, but he quickly fell silent when the anchor interjected, `but, how does that affect the wages paid?’
Factory owners’ self-construction as benevolent, kind, concerned and caring, as is evident from the discourse of BGMEA leaders, reminds me of colonial discourses since workers are simultaneously constructed as passive and backward, who are easily amenable to being `incited’ and `instigated,’ who turn `violent,’ go `berserk,’ on a `rampage,’ who vandalise, loot and destroy. They need to be pacified, and to do so,? an industrial police force has been established (October 2010). To maintain “law and order” in the export processing zones (EPZ), said the prime minister, to help maintain “smooth and uninterrupted productions” at mills and factories.
Even though leaders admit at times that there may be a few bad apples among the owners who give the industry a bad name, as a collective, they authoritatively claim to represent the nation’s interest, for it is they who are taking the nation forward, who have strengthened the national economy. The garment industry is a national resource, they say, but in contemporary business speak, as Lucy Kellaway writes, ownership is the biggest lie of all.?Using the “national good” as a rhetorical device covers “private advantage,” simply using the word “nation” does not make one “nationalists” (David Burrow).
Genuine worker grievances?rising from meagre wages, by all accounts, far short of living costs, and “notoriously” bad safety records?are covered up by speeches, both by factory owners and political leaders, who point fingers at “foreign” forces bent on sabotaging the nation’s progress, at vested quarters attempting to spread anarchy, at creating terror. Foreign, one must note, are both good and bad, the good ones are those that the owners are aligned to, foreign buyers, foreign investors, while the baddies are international labour rights and human rights organisations with whom local and national groups network to fight against grave injustices toward Bangladesh’s garment workers, who have the privilege of receiving the lowest wages in the highest earning industrial sector. The only industrial sector in Bangladesh which, since its inception, has been wracked by labour unrest, one which often enough spills out into city streets, whether in Dhaka, or Chittagong or Narayanganj, which disrupts public life, causes death and injury to members of the public (on December 12, 2010, a rickshaw driver was killed when police fired at demonstrating workers in Chittagong EPZ), and severe financial losses (cars set alight, buses torched).
But BGMEA enjoys the blessings of prime ministers both past and present. During her first tenure as prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, had inaugurated the construction of BGMEA Bhaban in November 1998. After completion, in October 2006, the building was inaugurated by then prime minister, Khaleda Zia.

The BGMEA Bhaban, illegally constructed on Dhaka city?s main drainage canal is, according to environmental activist group BAPA (Bangladesh Poribesh Bachao Andolon), primarily responsible for the capital?s chronic water-logging problem. ? New Age photo

The 15-story structure, standing tall, is illegal,?having been built on land that is government-owned, without approval from Rajuk, the city development authority, land which had been set aside for the Begunbari-Hatirjheel integrated development project. Having been built on land filling that was a part of the Hatirjheel lake, in gross violation of two laws, including the Environment and Wetland Protection Act 2000, it is said to be the main reason for chronic and severe waterlogging in Dhaka city. Urban experts, academicians and environmentalists have repeatedly called on the government to demolish the BGMEA building because it is right in the middle of the canal, it “defies the law in the heart of the city,” it inspires others to violate the law (Abdullah Abu Sayeed).
BGMEA’s vice president Shafiul Islam Mohiuddin’s response, the government must decide which is more important, the lake or the BGMEA, rests on the language of power. That of environmentalists, as do those of garment workers and their leaders, speak of justice. The law requires Rajuk to go ahead and demolish the building without waiting for a political decision, says noted environmentalist and director of Bangladesh Environmental Lawyers Association (BELA) Rezwana Hasan. ?If law is subject to politics, justice can never be ensured.?
I myself don’t understand what all the fuss is about. If the affected people of Phulbari can “easily be rehabilitated,” surely, so can the BGMEA headquarters? Maybe it is time BGMEA leaders and members learnt to live by the law, not to bend it to serve their own sweet will. It is only then that their claims of being committed to “national interests” will be honored by the public.
Published in New Age, Monday January 17, 2011

Moshrefa Mishu Hospitalised

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From Rahnuma Ahmed:

Dear friends,
Moshrefa Mishu, president of the Garments Workers Unity Forum, who was admitted to Dhaka Medical College Hospital (DMCH) last night, is under strict police surveillance at the hospital. Although she is in a woman’s ward, she is being guarded by both police men and women who surround her bed 24 hrs. It is very inconvenient and distressful for both Mishu and other patients in the ward as many are confined to their bed and have to use bedpans.
Her breathing difficulties have largely eased but her back pain is still severe, she is largely immobile; her sister told me that she cannot turn in bed without any assistance. X-ray and ECG tests were conducted today; she was taken to the examination room on a stretcher as she cannot sit upright.
Media reportage last night after news of her illness spread in Dhaka, particularly, news coverage in private TV channels, led to strict restrictions being placed on journalists and reporters today. Since no beds had been vacant when she was admitted last night, a `bed’ was improvised for her on the floor of the women’s ward; however, this afternoon she was upgraded to a `proper’ bed.
After last night’s media reporting, police are understood to have pressurised doctors at DMCH today to not allow anyone to enter the ward or to approach and talk to her. She is reported to be?receiving medical care and attention but doctors at DMCH are not answering any queries about the state of her health. If asked, they reply, they cannot say anything without the permission of the hospital’s director. Since Mishu’s falling sick — I learnt today that she had to be rushed to the National Hospital after court proceedings yesterday because she fainted when the police were helping her on to the police van to take her back to the DB headquarters — has received good coverage, it has meant `bad’ publicity for the government and has reportedly aroused the wrath of an Awami League-supporting doctor, who’s also very influential in the doctors’ association. He has threatened Mishu’s family members that she will be discharged tomorrow regardless of the state of her health.
Different labour and human rights organisations have contacted us in the meanwhile, they have expressed deep concerns over Mishu’s safety and security,?and promised to take up the matter with the Bangladesh government/ministries.
I request everyone to do the same, to spread the word, and to protest.
Tomorrow brings uncertainties, in addition to the state of her health, since Mishu’s sister is not sure whether she will actually be suddenly discharged from the hospital.
I promise to keep everyone posted.
In solidarity/r

Breaking News: Moshrefa Mishu taken on remand

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Please add your name in support of this statement

against the unlawful arrest of garment workers leader Moshrefa Mishu, and all garment workers, who have either been arrested or are being?intimidated and persecuted, for protesting against non-implementation of promised wage increases.
If you are supporting it as an individual, press `reply’ and write (a) your name (b)?profession or affiliation, etc.
For groups, please write (c) name of the group.

Please do this right now,?we will collect all signatures by BST noon tomorrow and send out the press release by tomorrow afternoon (15 December 2010).

in solidarity/rahnuma


We strongly protest the unlawful arrest of garment workers leader Moshrefa Mishu, demand that she be immediately released, and that the fabricated charges against her be dropped.

Moshrefa Mishu, general secretary of the Ganatantrik Biplobi Party and the president of the Garment Workers Unity Forum, was picked up from her home in Kala Bagan at 1.15 am on 14.12.2010 by a force of 12 persons or so claiming to be from the Detective Branch of Police, and was compelled to accompany them to an undisclosed destination. The force did not have an arrest warrant, and when her sister persisted in asking them to show a warrant, they threatened to arrest her. Mishu was only allowed to change her clothes but not allowed to take her medication with her, for asthma, and for a severe spinal injury caused by an attack on her life several years ago.
Moshrefa Mishu was produced in CMM court after noon today and remanded for two days. We protest against her illegal arrest, and demand her immediate release.
We also protest, and condemn, in the strongest possible terms, the government’s response to the garment workers demands for the implementation of a new minimum wage that should have come into effect last month. More than 3 million people, mostly women, work in this sector which accounts for 80% of annual export earnings and make clothes for major Western brands including Wal-mart, Marks & Spencer and Carrefour. Three persons were killed in clashes with the police in the Chittagong EPZ yesterday, hundreds injured, 33 arrested, and 3 separate cases lodged against about 30,000 unknown people.
Instead of taking `tough action’ to ensure that factory owners implement what is, by all accounts a low increase, prime minister Sheikh Hasina has in effect ordered that action be taken against the workers who, even with the increases remain the least-paid in the world, and largely unable to arrange shelter and buy food in a situation where food-prices are spiralling upwards uncontrollably. Safety conditions in many factories are below standard, as can be gauged from the deaths of 24 people, and injuries suffered by scores more, when a fire broke out at a garment factory in Ashulia, Savar today.
We condemn the government’s anti-people actions (killing, baton charges, firing tear gas, filing cases), we demand that Moshrefa Mishu and all others arrested be released immediately, and that the government take immediate and transparent action to identify those who were behind the acts of vandalism, who, according to the Home Minister herself, are `outsiders.’

BREAKING NEWS: Moshrefa Mishu was produced before the Chief Metropolitan?Magistrate (CMM) Court after midday today.* *The court granted 2 days remand.

We would like to remind everyone that she was arrested unlawfully, i.e.,?without any warrant; from what we have learnt since from her sister?Jebunnessa Jebu, despite repeatedly being asked the reason for their?presence, or whether they had a warrant, members of the force responded by?threatening to arrest Moshrefa Mishu if she persisted in asking to see a?warrant.
She was only allowed to change her nightclothes and to put on a sari but was?not allowed to take her medication for asthma and severe spinal pains,?caused by an attempt on her life several years ago.
Moshrefa Mishu has been receiving threatening calls over telephone warning?her to stop fighting for the rights of workers in the garments sector.
(Torture under police remand in Bangladesh : a culture of impunity for gross violations of human rights)

URGENT. Release Garment Workers Leader Moshrefa Mishu immediately, arrested on fabricated charges

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Please circulate this message as widely as possible, and do everything you can think of. Rahnuma Ahmed.
Officers of the Detective Branch of police picked up labour leader Moshrefa Mishu, president of Garments Workers Unity Forum, from her home in Dhaka a little after midnight.
According to news reports, her sister Jebunnesa Jebu who lives with Mishu, said she was was taken away to the Detective Branch Headquarters for interrogation around 12:45am,?14 December 2010.
About a dozen police officers, in plain clothes except one, carried out the raid on the labour leader’s Bhuter Gali home in Kalabagan.?The officers did not show any arrest warrant, said Jebunnesa, nor did they explain why she was being led away.?After having initially denied her arrest, she has now been charged by the police with having instigated garment workers to go `berserk’ at Kuril.
The arrest occurred three days after thousands of Bangladeshi garment workers picketed factories in Dhaka demanding the implementation of a new minimum wage that should have come into effect last month. Demonstrations and picketing spread to the Chittagong EPZ, three people were killed and 225 injured in police clashes in Chittagong on Sunday. Police have arrested 33?people and?lodged three separate cases against about 30,000 unknown people for Sunday’s deadly violence in the port city.
More than three million people, most of them women, work in Bangladesh’s garment factories, which make clothes for major Western brands, this includes Wal-Mart, Marks & Spencer and Carrefour.
State repression (killing, baton charges, firing tear gas, filing cases) upon workers who are fighting for implementation of wages officially agreed upon, makes a mockery of the democratic principles?that Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League?government claims to uphold. It is a matter of urgent concern that the police should release Moshrefa Mishu immmediately. The government should also release all garment workers who have been arrested, lift the cases against large numbers of people which is aimed at intimidating workers who are fighting for their rights, and should force factory owners to pay wages agreed upon earlier.
Related links:
Window to the soul
Exhibition by Taslima Akhter on Garment workers (lower down on the page)
BREAKING NEWS: Moshrefa Mishu was produced before the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate (CMM) Court after midday today. The court granted 2 days remand.
We would like to remind everyone that she was arrested unlawfully, i.e., without any warrant; from what we have learnt since from her sister Jebunnessa Jebu, despite repeatedly being asked the reason for their presence, or whether they had a warrant, members of the force responded by threatening to arrest Moshrefa Mishu if she persisted in asking to see a warrant.
She was only allowed to change her nightclothes and to put on a sari but was not allowed to take her medication for asthma and severe spinal pains, caused by an attempt on her life several years ago.
Moshrefa Mishu has been receiving threatening calls over telephone warning her to stop fighting for the rights of workers in the garments sector.

Window to the soul

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A portrait they say, is not so much a likeness of the person being photographed, but a depiction of one?s character. More grand definitions talk of them being a ?window to the soul?. I looked at my portrait of this ?enemy of the country? as a labour minister had declared, and wondered whether I had indeed found a window to her soul. She had just been arrested in Gazipur, and I had no further information.

Moshrefa Mishu secretary general of Ganatantrik Biplabi Party. ??Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

With numerous cases strategically lodged all over the country on trumped up charges, her arrest was always on the cards. In today?s countrywide strike for workers? pay, facing violent repression, their resistance was a defiant stand for the rights of the oppressed. She and the workers she represented, all knew the risks. She had to lead from the front, come what may.
One is generally kind to bread winners. They are the ones who sit at the head of the table, get the choice piece of meat, make after dinner speeches. Their comfort and their happiness is of prime importance to those who survive on that bread. Bangladesh earns 12 billion dollars from garment exports and gets three quarters of its export earnings from this single sector. One would imagine that the bread winners of Bangladesh, the two million garment workers, mostly women who had migrated from villages in search of work, would be offered a bit more than the Taka 1650 (less than USD 24) per month minimum wage.
But then these enemies of the country, didn?t stop at demanding more than a dollar a day for their work. They wanted weekends off, to be paid overtime, to be paid on time and enjoy statutory holidays. They even objected to their systematized sexual harassment.
So what if the garment sector was the most profitable, and the garment workers amongst the most poorly paid. Some workers getting paid as little as $ 12 a month maybe a bit on the low side, and maternity leave should really be given, but have some sympathy for the owners. Should the BGMEA bigwig owner who bought his wife the expensive Mercedes have to sell his car? It?s not only workers who find Bangladesh a difficult country to live in. The Merc, as I?ve been told, had been expensive to start with. With 850% tax being applied on luxury goods, the poor man had to pay nearly a million dollars for his wife?s set of wheels. OK, so it could have paid for a few $24/month salaries, but then his wife had other costs. They did have standards to maintain.
And these strikes were so annoying. Even in May, the death of the 25?year old worker Rana, led to unrest. The Rapid Action Battalion (RAB)?had to give up its normal task of extrajudicial killings to deal with?workers demanding decent wages.
I just heard that the campaign worked. Mishu?s been released. I should get on with my portraits. Perhaps I should photograph the garment owners to complement the picture of Mishu. Given my earlier failure with portraits, I would need to find the right metaphors for the window to their soul. A chunk of granite, glued to cold steel, wrapped in dollars could perhaps do the trick.
related links: Unheard Voices

From Dili to Delhi

I had just left behind a tense East Timor. No rice for several weeks? violence had again erupted on the streets. I had expected my one day pit stop in Dhaka, on my way to a UNAIDS assignment in India, to have been less eventful. Dili to Delhi had a nice ring to it. The plane had arrived in the early hours of the morning, and as I sat at Drik trying to finish the million pending bits that invariably pile up, Rahnuma rang to talk of the fire. Soon we were up there, outside the familiar building where I?d recently given interviews. Through the billowing smoke, my NTV and RTV mugs reminded me of how close our lives constantly were to needless tragedies shaped by irresponsible gatekeepers. I wondered whether the new gatekeepers in power, ushered in by an unspoken coup, would be different. They had started well, arresting corrupt individuals, and attempting to establish the rule of law, but the sinister rumblings of indefinite stay, had all the signals of previous regimes while the significant omissions in their ?hit list? was deeply worrying. On the plane Farhad Mazhar and I talked of having to brace ourselves for new measures designed to make us more safe. As for the disproportionate influence of ?friendly nations?, swapping freedom for security appeared to be the order of the day. I wish we had a choice on whom to befriend.
Naeem?s translation of Anisul Haque?s moving Op Ed, and Peu?s mail pointing to Munir?s powerful images,
phalus-brother-4306.jpgPhotographs copyright Munir uz Zaman/Driknews. (Permission for use and high resolution images available from www.driknews.com).
bring home a message too often forgotten. As Shupon points out, we forget very easily. As we?ve forgotten the deaths in the garment factories, or the ferry disasters. But then, those had involved the death of poor people.
spectator-5117.jpgcopyright: Shahidul Alam/Drik
The near death of the well to do could perhaps have a more lasting memory.
mountain-sunrise-and-cattle-5036.jpgcopyright: Shahidul Alam/Drik

The tranquil mornings in the mountains of East Timor seemed a long way away.
Shahidul Alam
27th February 2007