Sometimes the worst disasters come with warning signs, but we realize them only in retrospect. Months before the historic Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911, workers protested oppressive and unsafe working conditions in New York garment factories, but their outcry was continually ignored by employers until the preventable tragedy erupted and extinguished scores of lives.
Fast forward a century to 2012. Roughly a year before Bangladesh was hit with its worst modern industrial disaster, the murder of a trade unionist portended the lethal dangers looming over the country’s booming garment industry. This month, labor advocates are commemorating the first anniversary of the Rana Plaza factory collapse, which killed and injured thousands of garment workers and shook the global fashion industry. And they’re also mourning the second anniversary of the death of Aminul Islam, which should have been seen as an early sign of the human rights crisis roiling in Bangladesh’s factories.
Islam’s murder was emblematic of the oppression besieging Bangladesh’s labor movement, as well as the collusion between the state and the booming garment export industry. He was a prominent advocate for workers in the factories of the Savar and Ashulia areas of Dhaka and an organizer with the internationally renowned Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity (BCWS). On the eve of his death, he was helping to organize workers embroiled in a labor dispute with suppliers for global brands like American Eagle.
Islam knew he was courting trouble, as the BCWS’s intrepid grassroots organizing campaigns had made activists like him a prime target for harassment and intimidation by the police and security forces. In 2010, security officers detained and beat Islam, and he was eventually “charged with a number of spurious and unsubstantiated criminal offenses despite his verifiable alibis,” according to a chronology of the case published by International Labor Rights Forum.
The trouble finally caught up to him on April 4, 2012, when he vanished suddenly after going to meet a worker who is now suspected to have been an informant, according to an investigation by the international watchdog group FORUM ASIA. His body turned up the next day, “dumped by a roadside…almost 100 kilometers north of Baipal where he was last seen,” damaged beyond recognition. He had been beaten and tortured; a hole had been bored into his right knee. His corpse was later identified by his wife only after a photo appeared in the local paper.
The savagery and secrecy surrounding Islam’s murder were, to his family and colleagues, a clear sign that the authorities were behind his killing. And the silence surrounding the case two years on, despite international condemnation, is perhaps even more telling: his killers have never been brought to justice and the government has continually stonewalled activists’ demands for a transparent investigation.