How Journalist Offered Voice to Bangladeshi Factory Workers  

Journalist Saydia Gulrukh Kamal speaks at a protest in May 2021. The journalist says she is harassed and attacked over her reporting. (Credit: Shahidul Islam Sabuj)

In the bustling heart of Dhaka, where the rhythms of commerce often drown out the cries of the marginalized, one voice refuses to be silent: Saydia Gulrukh Kamal.

A journalist at the English-language daily New Age, Gulrukh has spent the past decade spearheading campaigns for justice for Bangladesh's garment factory workers.

In her reporting on labor issues, Gulrukh has covered death and injury in the workplace, and the resulting court cases as survivors or their families seek justice.

But in doing so, she and her paper have been harassed and threatened at protests, by anonymous callers and people connected to factory owners.

Bangladesh’s garment industry is a main pillar of its economy, accounting for 82% of all exports and bringing in $45.7 billion in 2022, according to reports. But the industry — which supplies major Western clothing retailers — has been beset with accidents, dangerous working conditions, child labor, and low wages.

The problems persist, despite Bangladeshi and international efforts to improve conditions.

Journalist Saydia Gulrukh Kamal, pictured in Dhaka in 2021, covers labor issues in Bangladesh's garment industry for the New Age newspaper. (Credit: Shahidul Islam Sabuj)

“We are always at the crossroads of movements — the struggle to reclaim our right to franchise, the movement for a living wage, media freedom, and many more,” Gulrukh told VOA. “At this particular juncture, it feels trivial to talk about my own experience; it is rather a privilege.”

But journalists like Gulrukh play an important role, both in advocating for factory workers, and informing global audiences about the conditions they work under.

Miriam Saage-Maaß, legal director at the Berlin-based European Center for Constitutional and Human Rights, told VOA that journalists like Gulrukh are essential for independent, fact-based and empathetic reporting.

“She is keeping the role of an observing journalist, but is also working from a stance of solidarity, showing full respect for the perspective of workers as agents of their own cause,” Saage-Maaß told VOA.

Without such reporting, said Saage-Maaß, “It is difficult to address the responsibility of global production chains.”

Perhaps the biggest case Gulrukh covered is the 2012 Tazreen factory fire, which claimed the lives of at least 112 workers.

SEE ALSO: Bangladesh Factory Owner Was Unaware of Need for Fire Exits

The search for accountability was core to Gulrukh’s coverage, as she reported on the victims and the resulting legal battle and wrote editorials on inequalities in law that she believes safeguard factory owners’ interests.

“We have written stories on unidentified, popularly referred to as ‘missing’ victims’ rights to burial and compensation. How has the immediate global and national response focusing on financial compensation diverted attention from the question of the criminal liability of the negligent owner?” she said.

The coverage and campaigning eventually resulted in the arrest of the Tazreen owner Delwar Hossain. The businessman, who is charged with causing death by negligence, has pleaded not guilty.

Eleven years on, the court case is still being played out.

“Every trial date, as I scribble down the court proceedings, the owner and his gang of lawyers are there, and they often don’t shy away from hurling verbal abuse,” said Gulrukh.

During that time, smear campaigns targeted the journalist, falsely claiming she is a prostitute. People would call late at night inquiring about her rates.

Some attacks have been physical.

In August 2014, while covering a separate workers’ protest over wages, Gulrukh said that police and people associated with a factory owner assaulted her and her colleagues.

But even when her own safety is jeopardized, the plight of workers remains her main concern. “I don’t want to dwell on this moment or event too long because workers work under literally fatal conditions,” said Gulrukh.

The journalist’s interest in the human cost of the garment industry goes back to the 1990s when Gulrukh was still a university student.

At that time, labor practices were poor, with no established wage board. Children made up a substantial portion of the work force.

Then in 1999 the U.S. introduced the Child Labor Deterrence Act to curb the importing of goods manufactured by children under the age of 15.

“This is when I wrote my first story on the labor issue. I had worked as a researcher with photographer Shahidul Alam, who was reporting on the impact of the U.S. law,” said Gulrukh.

Some factory owners still use child labor, Gulrukh told VOA. But during inspections, the minors are hidden, sometimes in crates.

“I met a mother who lost her son because the factory management forgot to open the carton after an inspection. The little boy probably died of asphyxiation. At the bottom of the global value chain, that’s how 'casually' loss, grief, and exploitation happen.”

Still, her coverage in New Age has led to change.

A series of reports led to the demolition of the building that housed the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, which was built illegally on a water body, and seen by many in Dhaka as a symbol of power for the factory-owning elite.

“It took a decade, but the building came down,” she said.

In her time reporting on labor issues, Gulrukh says there has been some change. “Public is more aware of labor rights. Media blackout of industrial accidents is not as easy,” she said.

But, she added, “Workers continue to join the factory with the knowledge that death at the workplace is always a possibility.”

FILE - Sara Hossain attends a fact-finding presentation at the United Nations Offices in Geneva, Feb. 28, 2019.

Sara Hossain, a human rights lawyer on Bangladesh’s Supreme Court, said that Gulrukh’s “insistence on searching for truth and accountability” shines through in her reporting.

“She has written and advocated for reparations for victims of these disasters and also exposed the threats, and harassment faced by those claiming justice,” said Hossain, who in 2016 was a recipient of the U.S. Women of Courage award.

Exposing labor issues has made Gulkurh and her paper a target, but she says journalists at the New Age are “shielded by the courage of our editor, Nurul Kabir.”

“There have been threats, increased state surveillance. The website has been hacked and blocked,” she said. But “No threats or pressure could bend the editorial integrity.”