Bangladesh will ask for clarifications for US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s comment citing a garment workers’ leader.
“We will ask the US for clarification of what Kalpona Akter said about being threatened by us or someone else,” Shahriar Alam, state minister for foreign affairs, said on Tuesday.
Blinken mentioned the case of Kalpona in his speech at the rollout of the memorandum on Advancing Worker Empowerment, Rights, and High Labour Standards Globally during an event of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation in San Francisco on Nov 16.
He said the US will work to hold accountable, taking steps like sanctions or visa restrictions, those who threaten or intimidate union leaders, labour rights defenders or labour organisations.
“We want to be there for people like Kalpona Akter, a Bangladeshi garment worker and activist, who says that she is alive today because the US embassy advocated on her behalf,” he said.
Asked about Blinken’s speech, Shahriar mentioned the premise of arresting Kalpona and her “successful” endeavours in preserving labour rights.
WHO IS KALPONA?
Kalpona is the chief executive director of Bangladesh Centre for Workers’ Solidarity and also the executive president of Bangladesh Centre For Workers’ Solidarity.
She began working in a factory in the 1990s at the age of 12 before playing a role in labour protest campaigns later as a child labour.
According to the BCWS website, Kalpona, Nazma Sheikh and Babul Akter formed the organisation in 2000. During a workers’ movement a decade later, Kalpona, Babul and Aminul Islam were arrested.
This caught the attention of different human rights organisations. They were released a month later, but the trial continued.
BCWS organiser Aminul was killed in 2012 amid unrest. A day after he went missing in Ashulia, his body was recovered in Ghatail.
Charges against Kalpona and other leaders drew the attention of the international community again after over 1,000 workers died in the Rana Plaza collapse.
Following the tragic incident, the US withdrew the Generalised System of Preferences benefits for Bangladesh.
In a bid to get the GSP facilities restored, the government withdrew eight cases against Kalpona and Babul.
ARRESTED IN THE US
Drawing upon the time Kalpona was arrested, Shahriar said: “If I remember correctly, she was arrested only once in 2012. She wasn’t the only one, as several other labour leaders were also arrested during a demonstration. But the charges against them were dropped later.”
Kalpona took part in protests in the US demanding compensation from Western buyers for families affected by the collapse of the building.
“When some Western countries declined to provide financial support after the Rana Plaza collapse, Kalpona and her two other colleagues joined demonstrations in the US but they were arrested,” Shahriar said.
A Guardian report from March 2015 said Kalpona and 26 others were arrested in the US when they arrived in New Jersey to hand over a memorandum to the chief executive officer of an organisation called Children’s Place.
International Labour Rights Forum and United Students Against Sweatshops funded Kalpona’s trip to the US along with garment worker Mahinur Begum, a survivor of the Rana Plaza collapse.
The Guardian report said Kalpona and others, who were arrested on charges of trespassing, were released two hours later.
In 2007, Kalpona took part in the US International Visitor Leadership Programme. Later in 2013, the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations listened to what she had to say about labour rights in Bangladesh.
‘NO THREAT REPORTED’
Citing records, Shahriar claimed Kalpona never reported the threat to her life to the government or law-enforcing agencies in Bangladesh.
“There are so many reporters who can go ask her whether she made the statement [about threat]. If she did, what was it based on? I think reporters can take the responsibility to go deeper into the matter.”
“She never told anyone in the country about the threat she had faced. So we will definitely verify the truth behind her statement.”
Shahriar also said there was no reason for Bangladesh to be troubled by the US announcement to impose trade sanctions if labour rights are violated.
“I’ve made it clear that the comments were not for the garment industry. Blinken’s speech was applicable to the Apec Summit, which was not aimed towards the garment or textile industries.”
“It was a global move, through which additional responsibilities were assigned to the ambassadors. But Bangladesh has already appointed a labour attaché after discussing the matter with the US. If something is not clearly presented, it causes confusion.”
“And I think the Bangladesh garment industry has no logical reason to be worried about the US steps.”
WHAT KALPONA SAYS
Asked about Blinken’s comment, Kalpona told bdnews24.com that she had not spoken about any particular instance of threat.
“From our jailing to the killing of our colleague Aminul, the trouble surrounding the registration of our organisation – all these things happened one after another. And the US Embassy had to be vocal about these in every instance,” she said.
“Then in 2016, our colleague Ibrahim was jailed for two and a half months. Six months ago, another co-worker Shahidul was murdered. My long-time colleague Babul Bhai is still facing proceedings in two cases.
“How can we be safe when our co-workers are being beaten, killed and harassed in legal cases?” she asked.