Dhaka, Bangladesh (BBN)-Bangladeshi labour activist Hasina Akter said she was signing up workers during a unionisation drive at a garment-factory dormitory in Dhaka when a group of men burst in, beat her, tore her clothes and threatened to rape her.

Another organiser with the Bangladesh Federation for Workers Solidarity, Mohammad Selim, who was with Akter, said he was shoved to the ground and kicked until he lost consciousness, reports The Wall Street Journal.

"I thought I was about to die," Selim said.

Police are looking into the allegations.

The alleged assaults, described by activists and factory employees who say they witnessed the February incident, illustrate the difficulties Bangladeshi labour leaders and garment workers face as they try to form unions in an industry that supplies cheap clothing to US and European retailers.

A series of deadly accidents, including the collapse of a factory complex outside Dhaka last April that killed more than 1,100 people, focused international attention on Bangladeshi manufacturers' shortcomings in safety and workers' rights.

Government officials and industry groups pledged to make improvements.

According to Labour Ministry statistics, unions represent workers at only 219 of the country's roughly 3,500 operating garment factories—despite a spate of recent registrations.

Most of the unions are at small plants, with few at larger-scale factories, according to the Bangladesh Institute of Labor Studies.

"The vast majority of garment workers in Bangladesh remain without collective-bargaining rights," said Syed Sultan Uddin Ahmed, the institute's director. "Workers' associations are struggling to make an impact because of legal barriers, their own weakness and opposition from factory management."

The Obama administration is due to review in May whether to reinstate trade privileges to Bangladesh that were taken away last year over concerns about the country's safety and labour-rights record.

Atiqul Islam, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, an industry group, said factory owners aren't obstructing unionisation. "There has been impressive progress," he said. "Workers are free to form unions in factories big and small."

Unions and human-rights groups say that company managers routinely use physical force, sexual intimidation and the threat of termination to stop workers from forming unions.

A February report by US-based Human Rights Watch, citing interviews with 47 workers at 21 factories, said that workers said "managers intimidate and mistreat employees involved in setting up unions, including threatening to kill them."

Labour activists argue that strong unions can help prevent accidents like the Rana Plaza collapse by insisting on worker safety.

Factory owners say a multiplicity of unions won't improve safety and could hurt productivity in the country's largest export industry.

Inspectors from the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, backed by 150 mostly European retailers, this year have begun inspecting the country's garment factories.

Last Wednesday the government shut down four factories and partially closed two others based on recommendations from Accord inspectors.

Last month, two factories in Dhaka were closed after Accord inspectors found serious safety problems, including overloaded ceilings, exposed cables and locked fire escapes, according to preliminary reports published by the group.

In a police complaint after the February 22 incident involving the Bangladesh Federation for Workers Solidarity, the umbrella union said that staff from the factory it was trying to organize, Chunji Knit Ltd., had led the alleged attack on its representatives.

The complaint said four union activists were hospitalised with injuries.

"There were people from the factory as well as some local thugs," said the federation's Akter, who spent six years as a seamstress before becoming a labour organiser.

"They shouted that we were saboteurs who wanted to destroy the factory," she said.

The unconscious Selim, the union organiser, was left behind.

Federation officials said they found him in a hospital two days later.

Police Sub-Inspector Liaquat Ali said authorities are investigating. "We are talking to people, trying to find eyewitnesses," he said.

Abul Mansoor, a senior manager at Chunji Knit, denied any factory employees were involved in the alleged assault on the organisers.

"Local people" had "confronted the labor activists and chased them away," he said. "This factory employs hundreds of local men and women and they don't want it destroyed."

Mansoor said the company, which employs about 3,000 people, doesn't have a union.

The company has made apparel for European fashion chain C&A and also for American retailer Sears.

In November, Bangladesh raised the legal minimum wage for garment workers to $67 a month. Chunji didn't follow suit, Mansoor said.

In mid-February, the company shut its factory amid protests by workers demanding more pay.

Workers said managers blamed the unrest on union activists. The plant reopened March 1.

"We were carrying out an evaluation that led to a delay" in implementing the new wage rule,  Mansoor said. "But very soon we will pay the new wage."

Shahnaz Begum, 25 years old, who said she worked at Chunji for four years, said factory managers had warned workers not to join the union before the incident in February. Begum said she and 17 others who were active in efforts to start a union at Chunji hadn't been allowed to return to work.

Mansoor said no workers had been fired for unionizing and suggested they may have "left of their own accord."

Maria F. Di Lorenzo, Sears Holdings Corp's SHLD -5.17 percent  chief global compliance officer, said the company had investigated the union's complaints by visiting the factory and reviewing available documents.

She said the company was "unable to confirm the involvement of any Chunji Knit factory management in the alleged attack."

Di Lorenzo said Sears routinely audits factories to assess compliance with several requirements, including freedom of association and abuse.

She said one of the company's suppliers had ordered from the factory in 2013, but had decided to stop buying garments from that location prior to this incident.

"Although we have no direct relationship with Chunji Knit Ltd, Sears takes these allegations seriously and immediately began investigating," Di Lorenzo said.

Thorsten Rolfes, a spokesman for Cofra Holding AG's C&A unit, said the company terminated its relationship with Chunji "for business reasons" in December.

BBN/ANS/AD/14Apr14-12:50 pm (BST)