RELEASE NAZMUL HUDA! – first journalist to report on the Rana Plaza danger

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REPORTERS Without Borders (RSF) call for the immediate release of Nazmul Huda, a reporter who was arrested on 24 December 2016 because of his coverage of a strike by garment workers in Ashulia, the Dhaka suburb where Bangladesh’s biggest garment factories are located.

The police accuse Huda, who works for Bangla Daily and Ekushey TV (ETV), a privately-owned satellite TV service, of reporting false information and encouraging the strike that began in mid-December in factories that produce clothes for leading international retail chains such as Gap, Zara and H&M.

Huda’s computer and mobile phone were seized at the time of his arrest. He distinguished himself in 2013 by being the only reporter to draw attention to structural problems in the Rana Plaza building in Dhaka before it collapsed, killing hundreds of garment workers and others.

A Dhaka police officer told Agence France-Presse that Huda is also accused of ‘destabilising the government’ and of meeting secretly with seven trade union leaders, who have also been arrested. The authorities say he was arrested under section 57 of the Information, Communication & Technology Act (ICT Act), which states that deliberately publishing material in electronic form that ‘causes to deteriorate law and order, prejudice the image of the state or person, or causes to hurt religious belief’ is punishable by seven to 14 years in prison.

RSF called for the complete repeal of the ICT Act in September 2013 on the grounds that it ‘enables the government to gag netizens (citizens of the net) and to arrest and detain them without legitimate grounds’.

The amendments adopted in August 2013 ‘permit even more arbitrary behaviour by the police and judicial authorities towards news providers,’ RSF said at the time. Harun Ur Rashid, local correspondent for Deutsche Welle (DW) and former head of programming at ETV, said Huda was the only journalist to have filmed the cracks in the support pillars of the Rana Plaza, a building that housed many garment factories.

Huda’s report was broadcast shortly before the building collapsed in April 2013, with a toll of 1,138 dead and more than 2,000 injured. Rashid praised the ‘unparalleled courage’ of Huda, who reportedly received many death threats after the arrest of the Rana Plaza’s owner, and said he deserved to be recognised for his work instead of ‘being treated like this by the authorities’.

Two days before Huda’s arrest, the powerful Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association decided to close 55 factories in Ashulia on the grounds that they feared acts of vandalism.

Nazmul Huda stands accused of incorrect reporting and holding secret meetings with union leaders – a charge that has been denied by at least one of his employers. He was the first journalist to report on problems with the structure of the Rana Plaza complex, just a day before it collapsed in 2013, killing more than 1,100 people.

The collapse of the building sparked global outrage and put the spotlight on working conditions, low wages and safety standards in a garment sector that manufactured clothes for some major global brands. Garment manufacturing makes up the vast majority of Bangladesh’s exports and any interruption is likely to have an impact on the economy.

It was the sacking of 121 workers that prompted the initial walkout last month. The workers’ protest soon expanded to demand a monthly minimum wage of 16,000 taka (£165; $203). It is currently 5,300 taka (£55; $67).

But factories nevertheless resumed operations on Tuesday 27th December and that was when hundreds discovered they had lost their jobs, reports say. Union chiefs said police used a controversial law to shut down the protests. Ashulia is a vast garment production hub used by clothing companies around the world, including Western giants like Zara, Gap and H&M.

• In Cambodia more than 100 Sinosky Hejun Garment Co Ltd workers went on strike for four hours on Tuesday to demand that the company allow their leader to come back to work after he was fired last month for creating a union. Mom Seak, president of the Khmer Union Federation of Workers Spirit, said the workers were demanding that Kim Chetra be allowed to return to work since he was fired unjustly.

‘The company fired their leader, who had just created a union at the factory,’ he said, adding that the union had been organised to help workers experiencing problems.

‘It looks like the company discriminates against unions,’ he added. The Chinese-owned garment factory, located in the capital’s Por Sen Chey district, produces clothing such as pants, shirts, shorts and tank-tops.

No company representative could be reached for comment yesterday. Srey Na, one of the 141 workers employed at the company, said workers were hoping their union leader would return to work. ”He is very active in helping workers,’ she said. ‘Workers chose him to be the union leader.’

• About 1,000 employees of the Victco Handbags Industrial factory in Kampong Speu province, Cambodia – the owner of which fled in May without paying final wages and severance – received a meagre payout from the owner of the building on Tuesday.

Chheng Chhoan, the secretary-general of the Collective Union of Movement of Workers, said that the owner of the building gave each employee about $40 instead of selling equipment inside the factory as the workers had demanded. ‘Each of them got about $40 from the owner of the building, but we will continue to demand that buyers such as Adidas, H&M and Walmart pay the rest to the workers whose employer escaped in May,’ he said.

Chhoan said buyers have to be responsible for paying the rest of the workers’ wages and severance after the employer fled. Victco Handbags Industrial, based in Hong Kong, said it was suspending operations for two months – March and April – while it worked to secure more orders from abroad. Employees of the factory were only given $24 each for both months, but the owner promised to reopen the factory in May.

At the beginning of May, when workers returned, they found the factory doors shuttered and were told the owner had fled the country. Workers then started sleeping outside the factory, preventing anyone from removing what little salvageable assets remained inside, and demanded three months’ wages in compensation.

They pressed the court to wrap up its investigation into the factory’s closure so they could at least get a portion of the money due to them through the sale of remaining machines and building materials. Chhoan said the owner of the building spent $45,000 paying the employees. Chhoan added that the total amount demanded by workers for lost wages and severance was about $700,000, which they were now demanding from the factory’s buyers.

Worker representative Vann Phalla said that the $44 she received from the owner of the building was a pittance and that the workers would continue demanding what they felt was due. ”We will keep demanding severance pay and our last wages that the employer never paid before he left. We want the buyers to pay instead of the employer,’ the 30-year-old said.

Phalla said workers felt unhappy and disappointed with officials for not finding a resolution for them. The workers marched to the Ministry of Labour seeking intervention on several occasions after the factory closed but never received a thing.