Tag Archives: Slave Labor

Indian Maid’s Arm Cut Off by Saudi Boss, Says Sister

Housemaid has her hand chopped off by female Saudi Arabian employer after complaining to authorities she had been tortured and deprived of food
  • Kasturi Munirathinam was working as a cleaner in Saudi city of Riyadh
  • Her arm was cut off, allegedly by her employer after she tried to escape
  • Indian cleaner claims she had been tortured and deprived of food 
Kasturi Munirathinam, originally from the south Indian city of Chennai, had been earning £150 a month while working a cleaner for a household in the Saudi capital.

Kasturi Munirathinam, originally from the south Indian city of Chennai, had been earning £150 a month while working a cleaner for a household in the Saudi capital.


An Indian housemaid had her hand hacked off allegedly by her female employer in Saudi Arabia and has complained she has been tortured whilst working in Riyadh.

Kasturi Munirathinam, originally from the south Indian city of Chennai, had been earning £150 a month while working as a cleaner for a household in the Saudi capital.

Since she started working in Riyadh, she said she had been tortured and deliberately deprived of food by her employers. 

Her family said that when Ms Munirathinam tried to escape, her employer decided to punish her and cut off her hand.

‘When she tried to escape harassment and torture, her right hand was chopped off by the woman employer. She fell down and sustained serious spinal injuries,’ her sister, S Vijayakumari, told the Press Trust of India.

‘The incident happened after… she complained about torture and non-payment of wages by her employer.’ she said.

Ms Munirathinam was taken to hospital in Riyadh and her condition has now reportedly stabilized.

A video has emerged on social media, allegedly showing the moments after Ms Munirathinam was attacked.

Since she started working for Riyadh, Kasturi Munirathinam alleged she had been tortured and deliberately deprived of food by her employers

Since she started working for Riyadh, Kasturi Munirathinam alleged she had been tortured and deliberately deprived of food by her employers

Ms Munirathinam was taken to hospital in Riyadh and her condition has now reportedly stabilised

Ms Munirathinam was taken to hospital in Riyadh and her condition has now reportedly stabilised

‘I pleaded with the lady not to harm me but she kicked me, punched me and cut off my arm. I want to go back home. Please help me,’ she says in the video according to the Times of India.

‘Kasturi’s employer was angered after she apprised local officials about the harassment she was facing there, she was not even provided food,’ her sister S Vijayakumari told the Press Trust of India news agency.

Sushma Swaraj, India’s minister for internal affairs, tweeted about the woman’s plight in Saudi Arabia.

‘Chopping of hand of Indian lady – We are very much disturbed over the brutal manner in which Indian lady has been treated in Saudi Arabia,’ she wrote.

It is thought Ms Munirathinam sought work in Saudi Arabia to help earn money for her husband and four children in India.

Indian foreign ministry spokesperson Vikas Swarup has spoken out against the attack on the Indian woman, telling the Indian Express that India had launched an investigation into the attack and will ‘continue to seek justice for the victim’.

‘Our embassy in Riyadh has taken up the matter with the Saudi Foreign Office and asked for strict action in the matter and severe punishment for the sponsor,’ he said.

He said a case of attempted murder should be lodged against the sponsor ‘so that he is punished, if found guilty as per law.’


Qatar’s World Cup Brought to You by Slavery

Blatter hits back in Qatar World Cup 2022 row

FIFA boss Sepp Blatter on Friday hit back at criticism over work conditions on World Cup venues in Qatar, accusing European companies and saying France and Germany pushed the bid for “economic interests”.

The big controversies surrounding Qatar as the site of the 2022 World Cup have been the shady bidding process and fears that the desert heat will ruin the soccer games. But in the past few days, the spotlight has finally begun to move to longstanding concerns over the treatment of the migrant workers who will be building the physical infrastructure for the sporting bonanza.

Throughout the summer, according to an investigation by Amnesty International [PDF] released this week, the future site of the sporting spectacle became a death trap for the Asian workers brought in by Qatar and its booming construction industry to work on the building sites of the planned World Cup facilities, including commercial areas and transportation infrastructure.

Amnesty found that the workers were encamped in sweltering heat, fell from precarious heights and suffered heart failure under the strenuous labor conditions. One Nepalese official described the entire system of indenture as an “open prison,” according to Der Spiegel. In light of dozens of reported deaths, union activists predict that up to 4,000 may die on the sites between now and the 2022 games.

Through interviews with the World Cup construction workers, the Amnesty investigators gathered horrific stories of an array of abuses, including “not being paid for six or nine months; not being able to get out of the country; not having enough–or any–food; and being housed in very poor accommodation with poor sanitation, or no electricity.”

Workers testified that migrants were frequently forced to work for poverty-level wages or sometimes none at all. Often, they said, employers confiscated their identification documents, effectively holding them hostage out of fear of being detained for lacking papers.

Unfortunately, while horrific, these stories are far from unique in Qatar. More than 90 percentof the labor that fuels the country’s oil-slicked economy is imported, typically brought in by recruiters from South Asian countries. Not only are these migrant workers non-citizens; in the eyes of their employers, they are barely human. They live in barbaric, squalid dormitories, their movement restricted, invisible under Qatari law and cut off from their home communities.

Under the transnational migrant “sponsorship” system, according to Amnesty, workers were drawn into the labor trade by recruiting agents who falsely advertised decent, high-paying work abroad-sometimes taking on heavy debt to secure a job. The byzantine residence permit system further disenfranchises workers. When employers illegally fail to arrange permits for workers, as was frequently the case in the shadowy migrant labor market, they generally cannot return home without paying extremely heavy fines. The restrictions on migrant workers’ movement mean that “rather than protecting the rights of migrant workers, the government is adding to their exploitation,” Amnesty contends.

Underlying the whole system are fundamentally weak protections for labor organizing on the part of Qataris and migrants alike, as well as prohibitions on migrants forming trade unions. The lack of organization among workers means many migrants remain in the dark about their labor rights. One Nepalese worker explained to Amnesty, “There are many workers who keep working like donkeys, without asking a question. They don’t understand what is legally our entitlements, what our rights are.”

Some have tried to challenge employers. According to the report, the Labour Ministry and the courts have each received thousands of worker complaints, many related to basic wage and hour and other labor issues. But due to fear of retaliation and the difficulty non-Qataris face in navigating the justice system, most aggrieved workers, according to investigators, probably do not go through with the complaint process in the first place.

One worker with the U.S.-based electro-mechanical engineering contractor Krantz Engineering wrote in a desperate letter to Amnesty in April 2013 about his lack of legal recourse for his abuse:

I am writing this email after lots of pain and struggle … I have complained in several places like Labour court, Indian Embassy, High court, CID and National Human Rights Council Qatar but no any positive response from anyone of them … I don’t have money to eat food from last five days as I didn’t get salary from last nine months.

Not all of the employers using this labor are Qatar-based–the report linked multinationals such as Hyundai Engineering and Construction and OHL Construction to the subcontractors building the World Cup-related facilities. In the case of Krantz, Amnesty discovered that one of the company’s subcontractors was receiving technical training from a company called TEEX, which is affiliated with Texas A&M University. When questioned by Amnesty about the treatment of migrants, Texas A&M argued the firm “does not have any role in the management and supervision of the labor force at the facility.”

Amid international criticism from Amnesty and other organizations like the UN, Qatar’s 2022 Supreme Committee, a managing body for the preparation for the games, has vowed to address the reported abuses, and FIFA has issued similar comments. In a formal response to the Guardian published in September, the committee cited numerous labor protections available to migrants, including restrictions on passport confiscation.

But Sharran Burrow of the International Trade Union Confederation tells Working In These Times via email she is unconvinced by Qatar’s promises. “Qatar continues to announce that it will reform the visa sponsorship system, yet nothing changes,” she says. In the wake of mounting criticism over the human rights issues surrounding the event, she adds, “Unless Qatar reforms its ways, FIFA should re-run the vote for the 2022 World Cup.”

There is also a question of who is directly responsible for regulating labor issues. Amnesty’s report focused on infrastructure construction related to the World Cup but not just the stadium itself–including transportation and supporting commercial facilities. In any case, the primarily responsibility, argue human rights advocates, lies with Qatar to reform its overall labor laws and to tighten oversight of private sector labor practices, particularly for international-sporting projects aimed at creating a global commercial spectacle.

This is not the first time FIFA has come under political pressure; earlier this year, populist protests erupted over the lavish costs of the preparations for the 2014 Brazil World Cup. Though FIFA generally urges host countries to comply with international human rights, the World Cup is notorious for inducing local labor violations. For example, labor activists have condemned FIFA for not taking strong enough action against Russia’s temporary suspension of key labor protections for the migrant workers at the building sites for the 2018 World Cup.

The human rights crises haunting World Cup stadiums reveal global sport’s economic realities: the commercial spectacle that brings the world together is built on vast inequalities.

Originally published at In These Times


Chinese Slave Who Smuggled Note in Halloween Product Has Been Found

Chinese Slave Who Smuggled Note in Halloween Product Has Been Found

Chinese Slave Who Smuggled Note in Halloween Product Has Been Found

Your Halloween decorations may have been made by Chinese slaves. Oregonian Julie Keith learned this from a horrifying letter a slave laborer had slipped between two Styrofoam tombstones in a “Totally Ghoul” holiday kit she bought at Kmart. Care2 Causes told her story last December in “Chinese Labor Camp Inmate Smuggles Out Plea for Help In Kmart Product.” Since then, the letter writer has apparently been identified.

The letter described conditions in the Masanjia Labor Camp. Thousands of inmates worked 15 hours a day, seven days a week, on pain of beatings and torture, the whistleblower wrote. These were not convicts: they were presumed guilty, usually of political crimes or subscribing to a banned religion, and imprisoned without trials.

Keith sought help. Human rights organizations didn’t respond, and U.S. customs officials said there was nothing they could do besides put her report in a folder, though they now call the allegations an “investigative priority.” Ignored by authorities, Keith posted the letter on Facebook. Journalists picked up the story. One outlet, CNN, launched a search for the letter’s author, and remarkably, it seems that they found him.

Speaking under the alias Mr. Zhang, the self-proclaimed writer, who had since been released from Masanjia, told CNN, “the first thing they do is to take your human dignity away and humiliate you.” Zhang said the prison used beatings, sleep deprivation and torture to control inmates. Another former inmate, Liu Hua, has said the camp was “hell on earth.” She described guards ordering other prisoners to beat her and losing consciousness during one such assault; when she awoke, she was forced back to work.

A third former inmate said guards chained detainees up and sexually abused them. Chen Shenchun, who received a two-year sentence for continuing a petition campaign to recover unpaid wages from a state-owned factory, told of electric batons left on her skin so long she could smell burning flesh, and of being dragged by her hair.

China arrested Zhang a few months before the 2008 Beijing Olympics, apparently because he was a follower of Falun Gong, which China considers a cult and has outlawed. Falun Gong is a spiritual movement that claims to be based on Buddhism. Zhang and others say that Masanjia’s guards were particularly rough on Falun Gong members, who may have constituted about half the camp’s population. A report from the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom found that the Falun Gong are subject to arbitrary arrest, long detentions and torture, which has resulted in 3,500 deaths. They make up two-thirds of the alleged torture victims whose cases make it to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture.

Other inmates were relegated to labor camps for criticizing the government or for petty crimes.

Zhang wrote 20 letters over two years about the plight of the prison camp’s inmates and packaged them in Halloween decoration kits, which was no small feat. He had to procure paper and a pen, neither of which prisoners were allowed to have. The only time he could write was during the already inadequate sleeping period, but even then the lights were kept on and guards watched every move. Zhang had to lay on his side with his back to the guard and prop the paper on his pillow, painstakingly spelling out the English he learned in college, then smuggle the missives into boxes that looked like they were headed for English-speaking countries.

His bravery and hard work, along with Keith’s determination to help, shone a light on Chinese “Ideological Education Schools.” China’s Communist party claims that it will stop using forced labor by the end of 2013. Masanjia has closed down, but it is only one of more than 300 Chinese labor camps, according to Amnesty International. A China researcher at the organization, Corinna-Barbara Francis, says closing the camps would be hard to do because they make money, and not just from the inmates’ labor. Prison guards collect bribes to ease up on particular detainees or even release them early. “Given the serious money being made in these places, the economic incentive to keep the system going is really powerful,” Francis said.

While Zhang is free, thousands of others continue to suffer in reeducation camps that treat inmates as slaves, while calling them “students.” This is one more reason not to buy products made in China.


Brothers separated for 43 years by cruel child migrant scheme finally reunited

Brothers separated for 43 years by cruel child migrant scheme to Australia finally reunited in Britain after desperate search

  • Bruce, Rex and Kevin Wilton reunited in Cornwall after 43 years apart
  • Separated in 1970 when youngest brothers were shipped to Tasmania
  • Rex returned to UK in his 20s but Kevin remained in Australia
  • Youngest sibling was tracked down in New South Wales four years ago
  • Brothers were able to reunite with the help of the Family Restoration Fund
  • Men suffered ‘mental’ and ‘physical’ abuse while in care overseas
  • Over 130,000 children were shipped abroad in ‘shameful’ program
Kevin (left), Rex (centre) and Bruce Wilton (right) have been reunited after 43 years apart.

Kevin (left), Rex (centre) and Bruce Wilton (right) have been reunited after 43 years apart.


Three brothers who were torn apart when two were shipped to Australia as part of the child migrant scheme in seventies have been reunited in Britain – 43 years after the last time they were all together.

Rex, Bruce and Kevin Wilton were separated as children after being taken into care following the death of their father.

However as authorities decided the care for unwanted children had become too expensive, the boys, like thousands of others, were offered the chance of a ‘better’ life abroad.

Kevin, Bruce and Rex as children in their Cornwall home. Bruce was just seven when the boys were taken into care by a foster family in the UK

Kevin, Bruce and Rex as children in their Cornwall home. Bruce was just seven when the boys were taken into care by a foster family in the UK

While the eldest brother Bruce opted to stay and work on a British pig farm instead, his younger siblings were shipped to work on farms in Australia where they endured ‘mental and physical abuse’.

The boys lost touch shortly after their departure, and went decades without a hint of each other’s whereabouts.

But, with the help of the Child Migrant Trust, the family from Mevagissey in Cornwall have been able to reunite in the UK.

Father-of-three Bruce said: ‘It was very emotional.

‘It was great for my kids and family to meet them. It’s still sinking in that we’re finally together as a three.’

The boys lived together with a foster family before being asked if they'd like to go to Australia, described to them in school as 'the land of opportunity'

The boys lived together with a foster family before being asked if they’d like to go to Australia, described to them in school as ‘the land of opportunity’

Kevin and Rex Wilton at their childhood home in Cornwall in the 1960s. The pair were sent to Tazmania as children but lost contact shortly after arriving Kevin and Rex Wilton at their childhood home in Cornwall in the 1960s. The pair hadn't seen each other for 21 years before last week

Kevin and Rex Wilton at their childhood home in Cornwall in the 1960s. The pair were sent to Tazmania as children but lost contact shortly after arriving
Rex and Kevin Wilton recall suffering mental and physical abuse during their time in Tazmania where thousands of children were sent to work as part of the scheme

Rex and Kevin Wilton recall suffering mental and physical abuse during their time in Tazmania where thousands of children were sent to work as part of the scheme

The boys boarded the last deportee plane to Australia from Britain in 1970 - three years after the child migrant programme was scrapped

The boys boarded the last deportee plane to Australia from Britain in 1970 – three years after the child migrant programme was scrapped

The boys were taken into care in when Bruce was seven after their father, who had ‘walked out’ on them and their mother, in Cornwall.

After living together in foster homes for seven years, they were offered the chance to go to Australia in a school assembly announcement.

Bruce chose to stay in the UK while his younger siblings boarded the very last deportee plane in December 1970.

The oldest of the brothers told Mail Online: ‘I remember, later, I regretted not going.’

‘As I got older every time I saw a book or a poster about Australia it reminded me I had lost my brothers.

‘We were told it was the land of opportunity. But, now, hearing what happened to them out there, I’m glad I didn’t go,’ he said.

Younger brothers Rex and Kevin were sent to Tasmania where they worked on farms together for several years before being separated.

When asked what kind of treatment they endured, their older brother simply said: ‘Slave labour’.

‘There were hundreds of them out there, hundreds,’ Bruce added.

The boy's mother, Marina Violet Wade, put them into care as she felt she couldn't cope following their father's death

The boy’s mother, Marina Violet Wade, put them into care as she felt she couldn’t cope following their father’s death

Rex, who was just 11 when sent overseas said: ‘The whole experience ruined my life. We were treated like slaves. It was wrong and should never have happened.

‘The care home was brutal – if the grass wasn’t cut in a certain way you’d be punished for it and he’d throw things at you like a stone or a shovel until it was done right.’

‘I believe that all our choices, by being in Australia, were taken away from us.’

Disillusioned with the country he’d been sent to in the hope of a better life, Rex returned to the UK in his 20s after selling all of his possessions to buy a ticket.

His search for older brother Bruce took a fortuitous turn one day while on he was on a train to Plymouth.

Bruce, 57, recalls how his younger brother ‘met a rather innocuous woman’ who was able to track him down after the pair got chatting on the train.

‘I don’t know how she was able to find me,’ he said, ‘but she did,’ adding the woman – who neither of them had ever met – happened to know where Bruce worked at the time.

They were reunited and began searching for youngest brother, Kevin, though this proved a more difficult feat.

‘It was just blockage after blockage after blockage – a series of dead ends,’ said Bruce.

‘It wasn’t that we didn’t want to find him it was just so difficult back then,’.

But in 2010, following former Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s apology to surviving migrant children, they were able to find their long-lost brother with the help of the Child Migrant Trust.

‘Rex found them,’ Bruce said, speaking of Kevin and his family, who were living in New South Wales at the time.

After their daughters began communicating on Facebook, the men arranged Kevin’s overdue return to Cornwall.

Speaking of their separate lives, Kevin, a retired miner said: ‘I have such fond memories of us as young boys and the jokes and laughter are still exactly the same.


The origins of the scheme go back to 1618 when a hundred children were sent from London to Richmond, Virginia, with the final party of children arriving in Australia in 1970.
It is estimated that over 130,000 children from the United Kingdom were taken away from their struggling families and shipped to Canada, New Zealand, Zimbabwe (formerly Rhodesia) and Australia as part of the programme which saw these vulnerable children as ‘ideal immigrants’.
In the post-war era, approximately 3,300 children were shipped to Australia while New Zealand, Rhodesia and Canada received a combined total of about 1,000 children.
It is thought the children, often as young as three, were separated from their siblings and told their parents were dead in order for them to make a fresh start abroad.
They were sent away with the expectation of a better life in a foreign land, but the reality that awaited them was one of torment and abuse.
Most were enslaved to hard labour on farms in Australia and Canada, while in New Zealand children were placed with foster parents.
Bruce and Kevin Wilton pictured in 1962. After finding brother Rex, Bruce tracked down their youngest sibling in New South Wales last year

Bruce and Kevin Wilton pictured in 1962. After finding brother Rex, Bruce tracked down their youngest sibling in New South Wales last year

Rex and Kevin Wilton pictured just four years before being sent to Tazmania in 1970. Rex was 11 while Kevin was just nine when they left Britain

Rex and Kevin Wilton pictured just four years before being sent to Tazmania in 1970. Rex was 11 while Kevin was just nine when they left Britain


In 2009  Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd apologised to the surviving migrant children in Canberra, expressing remorse for the ‘absolute tragedy of childhoods lost’.
Speaking to an audience of around 900, he said: ‘We are sorry.
‘Sorry that, as children, you were taken from your families and placed in institutions where so often you were abused.
‘Sorry for the physical suffering, the emotional starvation and the cold absence of love, of tenderness, of care.’
‘A turning point for shattered lives, a turning point for governments at all levels and of every political hue and colour to do all in our power to never allow this to happen again.’
The following year Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a separate apology for the ‘misguided’ scheme.
Speaking in the House of Commons the former Chancellor said: ‘To all those former child migrants and their families… we are truly sorry. They were let down.
‘We are sorry they were allowed to be sent away at the time when they were most vulnerable. We are sorry that instead of caring for them, this country turned its back.
‘And we are sorry that the voices of these children were not always heard, their cries for help not always heeded.
‘And we are sorry that it has taken so long for this important day to come and for the full and unconditional apology that is justly deserved.’
Mr Brown subsequently set up a £6million fund to help surviving families reunite.
It was this fund that enabled the Wilton brothers to come together after being separated for 43 years.
The boy's mother, Marina Violet Wade, put them into care as she felt she couldn't cope following their father's death

The boy’s mother, Marina Violet Wade, put them into care as she felt she couldn’t cope following their father’s death

‘I never thought we would get the chance to be together as a three again. There’s no way we’re going to lose contact again – I’ve missed them both so much.’

Speaking of the sequence of events that tore them apart, Kevin said: ‘We were too young to realize what was really going to happen.

‘When we arrived out there it was a extremely hard.

‘There was both physical and mental abuse at the home. They treated you just like a number – you never had any choices.

‘Myself and Rex had stayed in contact through letters but we eventually lost contact.

‘They sent me from place to place but over time Australia started to feel like home and I decided to stay.’

During Kevin’s visit the brothers plan to introduce him to other family members and spend their time visiting places from their childhood.

‘We went back to our hometown where we spent most of our childhood. It was like walking back in time.

‘It was very special,’ said Rex.

Though Kevin is due to return to Australia next month, the men are certain not to lose touch again with – especially since their children have established communication with each other online.

‘It was very sad what happened to us back in the 70s,’ said Bruce.

‘But you know, now we’re back together it’s as though we were never apart.’




Why sweatshop owners may start sweating

 Union activists in Bangladesh face threats and loss of work. Still, garment workers are starting to get organized, and factory owners worry that change is on the way
Daliya Shikdur, 20, organized a union earlier this year at the garment factory where she works in Dhaka. She's since been threatened and followed by men she says were sent by her boss.

Daliya Shikdur, 20, organized a union earlier this year at the garment factory where she works in Dhaka. She’s since been threatened and followed by men she says were sent by her boss.


DHAKA, BANGLADESH—By day, Daliya Shikdur manned a sewing machine in a local garment factory, her fingers a blur as she stitched the inseams of 130 pairs of jeans every hour.

By night, the elegant 20-year-old, wisps of black hair framing her high cheekbones, prowled the choked streets of Dhaka as a prostitute.

At least that was the story that was spread through the slum of Khanbari, where Shikdur lives alongside 150 other families who survive hand-to-mouth, many of them garment sector workers, rickshaw drivers and small business owners.

Truth was, Shikdur spent most evenings this spring trying to coax her 1,285 co-workers at Natural Apparels Ltd. to sign a union card.

“People said I was a prostitute because they thought there was no other reason a young woman would be out by herself after work,” Shikdur said during a recent evening in her home.

Shikdur is strong and confident, proud of her skills on the factory floor, and of her role as a union organizer. She is beautiful and strong-willed enough that she refused to consider an early marriage — no small act in a country where the U.N. says 75 per cent of girls are married before they turn 18.

Shikdur had the simplest reason for organizing a union: she was fed up.

After five years working at Natural Apparels, stitching pants destined for the Swedish retailer H&M, Shikdur was making $58 a month, plus another $10 for 12 hours of overtime. Not bad money for the daughter of a single mother from Jhalokati, a cursed rural district of rivers and oft-flooded farmland where illiteracy rates eclipse 55 per cent.

But life hadn’t worked out as it was supposed to after Shikdur’s move to Dhaka in 2008. This is her third factory job and her skills should have earned her respect — or at least the certainty that she would be paid the money she was owed. Shikdur could stitch hems and inseams, pockets and cuffs as fast as any of her peers.

Her boss was legally obligated to pay a $35 bonus for working 18 days straight, but those bonuses often went unpaid, and were often cut to $13 without explanation.

After several months of lobbying, Shikdur persuaded 450 of her colleagues to sign a union registration document.

“Having a union is about doing good for everyone, but it’s also about me,” she said. “I want better for myself. I want a better salary. I want to know I will get the bonus they owe to me. Shouldn’t I have that?”

On May 5, the government approved the request, making Shikdur and her colleagues members of an exclusive group.

United by tragedy

No country has come to depend as much on the ready-made garment industry as has Bangladesh. While the country’s $27 billion worth of clothing exports may pale next to China, the world leader with about $263 billion (Cdn.), garments account for 15 per cent of the Bangladeshi economy, compared to 3 per cent in China.

Some four million workers spend six days each week in the country’s 5,000 factories, stitching and sewing, cutting and measuring. Most begin their working day at 9 a.m. and remain hunched over machines until long after the sun has set and others here have made their way to mosque for the Maghrib, the evening prayer. The pay is astonishingly low. Newcomers to the industry make about 15 cents an hour.

Safety is often ignored. Many factories have dicey wiring, exits that are nailed shut or blocked, and no fire extinguishers.

For the moment, the world’s gaze is fixed on Bangladesh. On April 24, 1,129 people died when Rana Plaza collapsed, and the consequences continue to churn. Western retailers are trying to explain why their clothes are being made in an eight-storey factory that had three illegally added floors and was built on swampland.

It’s not the first time in the spotlight. From April 2005 until June 2006, a series of tragedies forced the Bangladeshi government to reform. Those incidents included one that foreshadowed Rana Plaza when 64 workers were killed in the collapse of a factory, also built on swamp ground, and also with floors illegally added. But it took riots by 100,000 workers and pressure by the U.S. government, itself pressured by the powerful AFL-CIO union, to bring about those changes.

With reformed labour laws and pledges made by multinational retailers, Bangladesh doesn’t look so bad on paper until the laws are ignored and the tragedies return.

But this time, factory owners — the country’s plutocrats, who can afford sprawling homes in Toronto and other cities overseas — worry that change is coming.

More than 100 retailers have signed contracts promising to pay millions of dollars for safety improvements and redoubled factory inspections. The Bangladeshi government is similarly on a hiring spree, increasing the numbers of safety and labour inspectors.

Grassroots efforts to organize workers seem to be succeeding. Shikdur’s union is among 45 that have been approved this year. That gives Bangladesh 50 unions for 5,000 factories.

“The factory owners hate unions,” said Alonzo Suson, the country director for The Solidarity Center, a Dhaka-based non-profit that gives legal advice to workers. “They say these workers are ignorant villagers, country bumpkins.

“Many people now believe that if those workers at Rana Plaza had a union, they probably wouldn’t have gone back to work after discovering cracks in the walls a day before the collapse. The drumbeat for trade unions has become loud and clear.”


While the West watches

In July, Bangladesh passed a labour law that the government promised would improve conditions for many of the 3.2 million women and 800,000 men who work in the garment sector.

But this may not be enough. In September, garment workers protested in the streets, demanding an increase in the minimum wage to $100 a month from the current $39. Meanwhile, activists say factory owners still obstruct workers like Shikdur, including one at a factory that makes clothes for a well-known Canadian retailer, a factory they accuse of firing or threatening organizers. Suspicion still surrounds factory owners’ role in the unsolved murder of union activist Aminul Islam in 2012.

“We tell our people to be very secret about starting a union,” said Amirul Haque Amin, president of the National Garment Workers Federation.

“Go slow. There’s no need to even say the word union in the first few discussions. They should just talk about the working conditions and whether they are happy or not.”

The new law also gives a labour director, a government employee, the sole discretion to approve a union or shut it down without notice.

“What will the director do a year from now, when the West is not so interested in Bangladesh factories,” said Babul Akter, president of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation. “Start quietly shutting the unions down?”

After the collapse at Rana Plaza, hundreds of thousands of garment workers walked off the job to protest the lax enforcement of building and safety codes. Within three days of the collapse, protests had spread to Chittagong, the second-largest city.

At least 200 factories were closed during parts of May because of worker walkouts and political strikes, said Nur Mohammad Amin Rasel, an official with the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association.

As recently as late September, at least 400 factories were forced to close as workers demanding a monthly minimum wage of $100 demonstrated in the streets.

The owners’ lobby carefully watches protests, and what they cost them. A BGMEA survey of 35 companies, conducted from March 28 to April 23, found that strikes known as hartals — which are organized by the political opposition, not unions — forced factories to spend $3.16 million on air freight to meet their shipping deadlines. Others who relied on cargo ships had to pay late delivery discounts of $1.2 million.

The surveyed companies reportedly spent a collective $1.1 million to repair vandalized buildings and lost $2.6 million in cancelled orders.

Followed after work

Shikdur lives in a one-room shack with her cousin and her cousin’s husband. The corrugated metal walls are so thin that you can clearly hear the neighbours’ conversations. The roof is a blue tarp tied to a rusty sheet of tin.

Shikdur sleeps on a mattress of stacked cardboard, bound by twine and tucked beneath a single bedsheet. It’s rough but better than the concrete floor where her cousin tosses and turns each night next to her husband.

“She’s younger,” Shikdur’s cousin Salma Begum said. “And she needs a good sleep with the (union) work she is doing.”

Shikdur has often been followed after work by a group of men. They taunt her and demand she abandon her efforts to organize. One man has phoned her cellphone repeatedly and threatened to break her hands. The police weren’t interested, she said.

The harassment started before Shikdur’s union was certified and has continued since.

“At one point, I saw the men standing there on our factory floor,” Shikdur said. “They don’t work there. They shouldn’t have been there but the owner let them in to scare me.”

Shikdur delivered a list of 18 demands, including an immediate salary increase of 12 per cent; fire drills every three months; a bonus each Eid equal to an employee’s monthly salary; and $1.36 for dinner money when employees are asked to work overtime to fill urgent shipments.

“We will give them some time, and then we will strike,” Shikdur said. “I don’t think there will be a problem convincing employees.”

Mohammad Tanvir Ahamed, the head of compliance for Natural Apparels, insisted that Shikdur has not been followed or threatened and that workers have been paid their full overtime.

“We have had no problems,” Ahamed said as he stood in front of a stack of H&M corduroys. “Everything here is fine.”

In an emailed statement to the Star, H&M spokesperson Anna Eriksson wrote that the retailer “fully supports any workers wishing to organize.”

“H&M does not accept disciplinary or discriminatory actions from the employer against employees who choose to peacefully and lawfully organize or join an association.

“In April 2013, after a constructive dialogue with H&M, the management from Natural Apparels Ltd agreed that registration of trade unions is a workers matter and that management cannot interfere in any way. In May 2013, H&M’s auditors conducted follow-up worker interviews which indicated this was no longer an issue at Natural Apparels Ltd. No contradictory information has come to our attention since then, neither from the union at Natural Apparels or from Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation.”

Eriksson wouldn’t discuss Shikdur’s complaints. “Out of consideration for the employees at our supplier, we choose not to comment on specific workers,” she wrote.

Eriksson said H&M plans to “look into” Natural Apparels again.

Friends in high office

The garment sector is well-represented in Bangladesh’s parliament. Tipu Munshi, a member of the parliamentary standing committee on textile and jute, owns Sepal Garments. Another factory owner, Amir Khasru Mahmud Chowdhury, was commerce minister and remains an MP.

In all, 60 per cent of the 300 members of Bangladesh’s parliament have direct or indirect ownership interests in the garment sector, said Iftikhar Zaman, executive director of Transparency International’s Bangladeshi unit.

“It’s a sad trend,” Zaman said. “In our first parliament as a country after 1971, 18 per cent of our parliamentarians were businessmen. The rest were doctors, social workers, lawyers, professions like that. Now, more than half of our politicians have a financial interest in the garment factories.

“Our political leaders don’t talk in terms of what workers deserve. They talk in terms of trying to appease international pressure. They do this because they have to, because they are afraid of losing orders, not because they think it’s the proper thing to do.”

One incident highlights the BGMEA’s influence and its ability to blunt enforcement of the law. After the fire at Tazreen Fashions in November, the lobby group’s inspectors reported that four other factories fell short of the building code or labour laws. The owners included BGMEA president Atiqul Islam, Islam’s predecessor and a former vice-president of the association. None of the four owners were prosecuted.

Factory owner Annisul Huq has twice served as president of the BGMEA, whose members account for 80 per cent of the country’s exports and who work with the government on security, building codes and labour issues.

Like other owners, Huq is suspicious of unions because they too often are controlled by corrupt officials.

“This idea of unions is dreamy. ‘Oh, let’s hear the voices of the workers,’ ” Huq said. “But unions will bring chaos. It’s going to shut down our industry. We hear from our friends in Cambodia where they have unions, and the owners there just have to pay bribes to the union leaders.”

Huq, whose company Mohammadi Group makes clothing for customers such as Van Heusen, said the U.S. and other western countries are hypocrites.

“Look at China, where 2,000 people per year die in industrial accidents,” Huq said.

“At least 800 died in the U.K. last year in industrial accidents,” he said.

(For the record, Chinese state broadcaster CCTV reports 72,000 workers died in workplace accidents in 2012. According to British government statistics, 148 people died in the U.K. in workplace accidents during the fiscal year ended March 2013.)http://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/fatals.htm

“Our problem in Bangladesh is we are too nice,” Huq said. “We open up too much to (the media) with information.”

But since the Rana Plaza collapse, many western journalists have been refused entry to Bangladesh. The Star waited two months for journalist visas to travel to Bangladesh, during which time neither the officer in charge of press visas nor the Bangladeshi high commissioner to Canada returned calls. Star reporters later entered on tourist visas.

Huq also criticized foreign media for coverage of the murder of Islam, the labour activist who was killed in April 2012, two years after he was arrested for helping organize protests in Dhaka. Huq insisted Islam wasn’t killed for his organizing.

“He wasn’t important enough to murder,” Huq said. “I’m sorry he is dead, but until he was murdered I had never even heard of him. And now the U.S. demands better working conditions and unions here.

“Well, the U.S. has just given Colombia free-trade status,” he said. “More than 700 trade union people are killed there and they get free-trade status.”

(According to the International Trade Union Confederation, there were 2,832 murders of trade unionists in Colombia between 1986 and 2010. Congress passed a free-trade law with the South American country in 2011.)

“There is no justice,” Huq said.

 Getting organized

In the waning weeks of 2012, Imran Hossain Hannan and three co-workers quietly organized a union.

Hannan, 22, started work at the factory in October 2010, and after a few months was sewing zippered flies onto 100 pairs of pants each hour.

“No one can do more than me,” Hannan said during a recent evening at his home. “One day I will do 150.”

Hannan had only worked at the Rebecca Fashions factory, which has contracts with Canadian firms Reitmans and Fame Jeans, for a few weeks before he understood the need for a union.

“We were paid late, never got our overtime, didn’t get bonuses, had low wages and no holidays,” Hannan said. “The women had no maternity leave and we had no daycare centres or doctors. One time in early 2011, a woman was stitching buttons and a needle on a machine went right through her thumb. She went to the hospital and the factory refused to pay.”

In October 2012, Hannan and others filed a union application, and on Dec. 14, their union was registered.

Following his shift on Jan. 15, 2013, stitching pockets on pants headed to Reitmans stores across Canada, Hannan was asked to meet a supervisor.

“He gave me the salary I was owed, and said it wasn’t possible for me to work there anymore,” Hannan said. “I asked why, what did I do wrong? He just said it was dangerous for me to be there.”

Hannan said he and three other union organizers were fired.

The factory’s owner Yasser Khan said Hannan is lying.

“The four at my company were not fired, they quit,” Khan said in an interview. “It’s something you see in Bangladesh.

“They get their pay at the end of the month, they go back to their village for 10 days or so, and when they come back to the city, they look for new work, for more money than they got at their previous job. I didn’t fire them for having a union. I didn’t even know they were forming one.”

Khan, who said his company records a profit margin of about 3 per cent on $8 million in sales each year, agreed to rehire Hannan and the others in August.

“The BGMEA just said it would be best if I rehired them, so fine, I did,” Khan said. “But since Fame Jeans in Canada heard about this case, they have cancelled $150,000 in orders from me. It’s still sitting in my factory.”

Fame Jeans executive Alen Brandman said his company has no knowledge of the firings. “Fame Jeans policy is that if a shipment is late or does not meet our quality standards as per our purchase order we reserve the right to cancel the order,” he wrote in an emailed statement.

 Hannan said it’s good to have his job back.

“The conditions are better. At least there’s a fan overhead. But I’m still insecure. They haven’t told me what my salary is. They just say ‘work and don’t worry about that.’ And I’m not allowed in any common area near other employees.”

Reitmans chief executive Jeremy Reitman said in an interview that the company is investigating Hannan’s claims of being fired unfairly.

“We don’t contract to them directly, but sometimes we use agents for this work, and we may have in this case,” he said. “We’re looking into this.”

‘If you paid more . . .’

Late on a Thursday evening, Shikdur sat on the floor of her home, next to a bowl of shrimp and potato simmering in a green banana curry.

She was flustered after getting into a fight with her supervisor earlier in the day.

“I averaged 130 pieces each hour and they marked me down for 110,” she said. “I said to my supervisor, ‘Why are you doing this? I will complain.’ He said, ‘You go and do whatever you want.’ So I called him a son of a bitch.

“He left and went to the compliance office and filed a complaint. I got a warning notice.”

Her cousin Begum looks concerned. “This is not safe,” she says.

Shikdur clucks her tongue and tucks her hair behind her ear. She knows that it’s possible she’ll wake up one day soon without a job.

“I just wish people in the north just paid a bit more for your clothing,” she said. “You spend more on a shirt than I make in a month. Maybe if you paid just a bit more, we could have a good life here.”


Mafia’s Prime Role in Human Trafficking Misery

Italian mobsters work with Egyptian crime syndicates to imprison migrants and extort cash

Coffins of victims are seen in an hangar of Lampedusa airport on October 5, 2013.

Coffins of victims are seen in an hangar of Lampedusa airport on October 5, 2013.


The role of Italian mobsters in human trafficking – of the kind that saw more than 350 African migrants perish off the coast of Lampedusa in a single boat disaster earlier this month – has been laid bare by police.

Members of Mafia organisations work with crime syndicates in Egypt to charge would-be illegal immigrants for the dangerous voyage from Africa to Italy – and then hold them prisoner in horrendous conditions, to extort more money from the migrants and their families, according to police reports carried by La Repubblica.

Dramatic video evidence has emerged of one of the worst cases, which occurred on 23 September 2011. After paying an Egyptian crime clan to be taken by boat to Sicily, 22 Egyptian men were seized when they landed in the port of Rutta e Ciauli, near Syracuse, and locked in a dark basement for eight days without food or water. Their captors refused to release them until their families wired more money to their captors.

After police freed them on 30 September, the migrants said they had only managed to survive by drinking rainwater that dripped into the dungeon.

In video footage of the moment in which police break into their prison, one policeman told the reporter: “They were herded like rats… the smell was nauseating.”

The Egyptians seized at Rutta e Ciauli told investigators that when their boat neared land, after eight days of travel, it was met by a small boat with three Italians and an Egyptian named Hamada aboard; he was arrested but police have yet to identify the Italians.

According to police, a chilling wiretap made in 2011 overheard one Sicilian Mafia boss telling the Egyptian traffickers: “If they find you, throw them [the migrants] all into the sea”.

Investigators say another large group of North African migrant “prisoners” was discovered earlier this year in Campania, the region dominated by the Camorra crime syndicate. Another case occurred in Sicily two months ago.

Italian police said the payment system in Rutta e Ciauli required migrants to settle part of their fee at the start of their journey, with the Egyptian Amro crime family. An additional amount had to be paid via the Western Union system to a cashier located in Milan. Failure to pay the full amount saw the migrants detained indefinitely.

Mafia expert and author Corrado de Rosa said it was “inevitable” that Mafia clans would be involved in human trafficking on the southern coast of Italy.

“If there are illegal activities in their territory, they’ll know about and they’ll regulate and profit from them,” he said.

He added that Rutta e Ciauli, where the 22 Egyptians in the video were seized, was a “notorious and violent place where migrants, mafia and traffickers come into contact”.

And he said the system of imprisoning migrants until payments are made tied in with what happens across the south of Italy – in the orange groves in Calabria and with the fruit pickers in Puglia. “It’s not exaggerating to use the word “slavery” for the migrants, usually African, some of whom have no freedom until they’ve paid enough money.