Conflict & Justice

After shock: A Bangladesh labor activist’s journey from Tazreen to Savar


Gulrukh collects found belongings to remind her of why she fights for labor rights. At the Adharchandra H. School that was used for a morgue, Gulrukh finds a dirty shirt and a capsule of incense.


Ruth Tam

DHAKA, Bangladesh — When labor rights activist Saydia Gulrukh closes her eyes, it isn’t the images of the ruined Rana Plaza building that haunt her. It’s the sounds.

“I can still hear people scratching on the inside of the walls, praying and reciting the Koran,” she says, her dark eyes downcast.

After the eight-story building collapsed in April, killing 1,127 people in the worst industrial disaster in the country’s history, Gulrukh rushed to Savar. She comforted gravely injured garment workers sandwiched between broken slabs of concrete before heading to the Savar Enam hospital to assess the damage.

“My initial impulse is always to go to the hospital,” she said. “The government will steal bodies to minimize the loss.”

At the hospital, wards were so overbooked that family members were not allowed in. But Gulrukh ferried people into the hospital for hours, connecting injured workers with their loved ones and collecting flyers of those still missing.

How did the day end?

“It didn't,” says Gulrukh. “It's still going on.”

Six months to the day after a fire at the Tazreen factory that claimed more than 100 workers, the fall of Rana Plaza has turned Western retailers and consumers’ attention back towards Bangladesh.

In response, H&M, the largest producer of clothing in Bangladesh, signed an agreement to fund fire safety and building improvements in their Bangladesh factories. Inditex, the owner of Zara, joined them along with PVH, the owner of Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger and Izod. More recently, labor activists have urged the Obama administration to revoke Bangladesh’s unique tariff-free trade status. 

To Gulrukh, the rise of attention from international media creates a complicated situation for activists on the ground.

“Newspapers tend to repeat the story of the worker’s plight,” Gulrukh said. “Things like Tazreen and Rana Plaza are reported as an ‘unfortunate event that happened.’ But when a similar event happens over and over, it’s not an accident. It’s structural killing.”

Gulrukh’s activism began when she was an undergrad at Jahangirnagar University in Savar, a subdistrict 15 miles outside of Dhaka, Bangladesh’s capital. Her female classmates began confiding in each other with stories of rape and abuse by male students. When an alleged rapist was found celebrating his one hundredth rape in the male dorm, Gulrukh joined a group of women in protest for 37 days until he was expelled.

In 1998, Gulrukh became a voice for garment workers when she collaborated with photographer Shahidul Alam on a project about child workers. In the years that followed, Gulrukh continued her studies at Simon Frasier University in Canada and decided to pursue a Ph.D. in anthropology at University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill.

As a researcher, writer and activist, Gulrukh is careful not identify herself as only one of these things, but a combination of all. To her, the importance of these identities varies and her work in one role always informs the others. Her experience as an academic, for instance, has aided her pursuit of justice for the victims of last November’s Tazreen fire. While the Bangladeshi government reported 112 deaths, Gulrukh’s group of self-described “activist anthropologists” say the number is at least 124.

“Neither the government nor the factory was prepared to handle a disaster of that level so mistakes were made at every step,” Gulrukh explained.

Since last November, Gulrukh has delayed her fieldwork for her Ph.D. to get compensation for the surviving Tazreen workers and family members of the deceased. Earlier this year, her group organized a press conference demanding that Tazreen factory owner Delowar Hossain compensate dead workers’ families with an amount equivalent to what their lifetime wages would have been.

Gulrukh has also sought justice against Hossain, who has been charged with criminal negligence. Five months before the fire, the building’s fire safety certification expired. Despite the fire department’s refusal to renew it, Hossain continued to run his factories, illegally stacking six floors on top of a building only approved for three. Gulrukh attended Hossain’s first court appearance but was disappointed by the outcome. Though Hossain had been ordered to explain the circumstances surrounding the fire, he maintained his opinion that the fire was a case of sabotage.

“He was surrounded by four thugs,” she said. “And it was very clear he had paid someone high up to protect him.”

As Hossain exited the court building, Gulrukh said, she looked him in the eye and promised him in English that she would be watching him. In Bangladesh, what defines a national issue is often a matter of class. To speak to Hossain in English instead of Bengali was to convey the global extent of the labor rights movement, which was mostly just of interest to the workers for many years.

For those involved with the labor movement in Dhaka, the problem is no longer about gaining exposure but about combating what Gulrukh calls the “audacity and arrogance” of those in power.

Though Sohel Rana, the owner of Rana Plaza, was arrested by local authorities, Hossain’s affable relationship with the law is much more common. Factory owners are often politicians, and local activists say corruption is rampant. Factory administrators are also suspicious of garment workers, who they say hire non-workers to bolster numbers during protests.

“Most of the factory workers are women,” said K. Jamil Ahmed Ansari, the Bangladesh Country Office Manager for Cotton Council International. “Why are all the activists men?”

Gulrukh said she is confronted with a slew of emotions every day. Among them are despair for the workers who have lost their lives, anger for the factory owners who have exploited poor for personal gain and exasperation for politicians who make careers out of empty promises.

“Since Rana Plaza, I haven’t slept more than two hours at a time,” she admits. “I feel like I should be doing something.”

Given the challenges that face the labor movement, the most surprising of these emotions is hope.

“Every time I go back to the site of Rana Plaza, there’s a women there who recognizes me. Today she gave me a mango even though I haven’t done anything for her,” Gulrukh recalls. “There is bitterness and sadness but also affection. There are so many colors.”