Parallels
3:37 am
Wed July 10, 2013

Bangladesh Collapse: The Garment Workers Who Survived

Originally published on Wed July 10, 2013 3:57 pm

(We updated this post at 11:58 a.m. ET to include a statement released Wednesday by Walmart. Click here to see that)

It's been 2 1/2 months since the Rana Plaza collapsed on garment workers in Bangladesh, exposing abysmal safety conditions in the country's factories.

On a recent trip to Bangladesh, I sought out the survivors of what was the deadliest disaster in the history of the garment industry. An overwhelming number of the victims are women, many in their early 20s.

A visit to one of the hospitals provided a glimpse into the sort of injuries they sustained while Rana Plaza buckled: giant metal screws protrude from arms and legs literally holding limbs together.

Rebecca Khatun wasn't so lucky. The petite 22-year-old, her raven-hair plaited in a thick braid, is splayed across a hospital bed in a ward lined with rows of victims. Mosquito netting covers her amputated leg. A stump bandaged just below her hip is all that remains. Cockroaches swarm the railing of her metal bed, just one more indignity in the calamity that has claimed five members of her family.

"My mother, grandmother and two cousins were all working inside the factory that day. But there is no trace of them. How can that be?" she asks incredulously.

Only the body parts of a fifth relative were found.

"I lost my left leg and right foot," she says, gently weeping. "But it's even more painful that my mother is lost from my life."

The mother-daughter team worked side-by-side at the Ether Tex garment factory on the fifth floor. Her mother came to her and said, "Let's have breakfast and then start working." Khatun was already sewing and told her, "You go and I'll catch up." It was the last time they spoke.

On the morning of the collapse, Khatun says, "We didn't want to enter the building because of the huge cracks" detected the day before. "But the manager told us unless you go in, you won't get paid and you'll lose your job. So, we entered, but I vowed then that I would collect that month's salary and quit."

She lay crushed beneath a beam all day and all night until rescuers discovered her the next day.

Khatun received $120 in compensation and free medical care. She's awaiting an additional 1 million taka ($12,000) that the government promised for the grievously injured. It's a considerable amount in one of the poorest countries in Asia, but Khatun's doleful eyes flash with anger as she considers the sum.

"Seven members of my family worked there. Just two of us are alive. I've lost my limbs," she says. "How can $12,000 ever be enough?"

In a bed nearby, 23-year-old Rojina Akter's right leg weeps with wounds. She recalls on the morning of the disaster that the power failed.

"As soon as the power generators switched on, the building collapsed," Akter says.

It's believed that vibrations from the huge rooftop generators contributed to the chain of events.

Akter says she was one of 16 workers who were trapped in a tiny space as beams began falling all around them. A male colleague found a hole in the rubble, and "we made a rope tying their scarves together. ... I was numb with pain, but I cried out with joy after seeing the sky. I thanked Allah. I was so thankful to be alive."

Akter earned $65 a month as a sewer's assistant; the minimum wage for Bangladesh's garment workers is $37 a month.

"We are poor. We work to live," she says. "We entered the factory because we needed to be paid. But the government should have overseen the construction of Rana Plaza; it was built on marshy land."

And, she says, the top three floors were added illegally.

The titans of the garment industry like to brag that the factories have liberated women in the conservative culture of Bangladesh by getting them out of the house to earn money.

Workers' rights activists look to Western retailers and consumers to use their economic leverage to press for greater wages and safer working conditions for Bangladesh's 4 million garment workers. Some 70 retailers, mostly European, signed an agreement this week to conduct independent inspections of factories and to finance fire and safety upgrades.

U.S. retailers such as Gap and Walmart refused to sign on. Walmart corporate affairs told NPR in an email that the company will unveil its own "broader safety plan with an alliance of brands and retailers" and that Walmart "is paying for in-depth safety audits" at "every factory directly producing products" for it. But Walmart would not say whether the audits were independent or whether the plan is binding.

Khatun, who lost her leg and members of her family, says if there had been a union at Rana Plaza "this accident would not have happened because we would have had a stronger voice" to bargain with the managers and the factory owners.

Only a tiny fraction of the country's 5,000 garment factories have unions.

Akter is skeptical about pledges by the government and industry that post-Rana Plaza unions will be allowed to flourish. She says frequently the union leaders are co-opted by the owners who single them out for special treatment so "they cease their protests." She also doesn't think that raising the cost of clothes for Western consumers will help the workers.

"Even if the consumers pay double," she says, "the factory owners will not pass along that increase to us."

As Akter talks, her mother dabs medicine on her wounded leg. The 23-year-old is not only traumatized physically, but mentally, as well. She suffers nightmares that the hospital is caving in. But the disaster has not diminished her dreams.

"I'm planning to buy a plot of land to farm with the money I received from generous donors," she says. "One man gave me a sewing machine and told me, 'Get well and don't ever go back to a factory.'

"I won't," she says.

But Akter is anxious to get back home to her simple corrugated tin shed where, at least, she says, "It's safe."

Update at 11:58 a.m. Walmart Statement

Walmart announced Wednesday a five-year binding initiative with 17 brands and suppliers, including Gap. The company says the Bangladesh Worker Safety Initiative "sets aggressive timelines and accountability for inspections, training and worker empowerment."

Walmart said: "We believe companies and government have a responsibility to ensure that tragedies like those in Bangladesh do not happen again."

But labor rights watchdogs called the plan a "sham." Among other things, the Workers Rights Consortium and the International Labor Rights Forum said: "Worker representatives are not part of the agreement and have no role whatsoever in its governance." The groups noted that while Walmart, Gap and their allies say the companies will make $110 million in loans available, there's no way to see if any company will follow through.

In a separate statement, Michael Posner, a professor of business and human rights at New York University's Stern School of Business, said it does not make sense for there to be two competing initiatives — one American and one European.

"What's needed in Bangladesh is a comprehensive industry-wide industry effort aimed at building a sustainable sourcing model that will ensure the workers in those factories, who are mostly young women, have a voice and assurance that they can work in a safe space," he said.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene.

A devastating building collapse in Bangladesh last April exposed a reality in that nation's garment industry. Abysmal safety conditions in factories put workers at risk every day. Now, another reality: Victims of the disaster may work in an industry that wields great economic power, and yet they're finding it hard to get help putting their lives back together.

NPR's Julie McCarthy traveled to Bangladesh, and she filed this report.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC AND CAR HORNS)

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: On this traffic-clogged, garbage-strewn street 40 minutes from central Dhaka, there is a gap in the buildings. What once stood here was Rana Plaza, a testament to the global demand for cheap clothes. It housed five clothing factories, employing 3,000 workers. On an April morning, when the building buckled, more than a thousand people were killed in the deadliest disaster in the history of the garment industry.

The wreckage is cleared. What remains are the ruined lives of victims who survived and languish in hospitals, limbless and in pain. Most are women.

MCCARTHY: Petite and raven-haired Rebecca Khatun is splayed across a hospital bed in a ward lined with rows of Rana Plaza victims. A bandaged stump just below her left hip rests beneath mosquito netting, all that remains of her leg. An army of cockroaches marches along the metal bed, one more indignity in this calamity that has claimed five members of her family.

REBECCA KHATUN: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: My mother, grandmother and two cousins were all working inside the factory that day. But there is no trace of them. Only the body parts of a fifth relative were found.

KHATUN: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: I lost my left leg and right foot, she gently weeps, but it's even more painful that my mother is lost from my life.

The daughter-mother team worked side-by-side at the Ether Tex garment factory operating on the fifth floor.

KHATUN: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: On the morning of the collapse, Rebecca says: We didn't want to enter the building because of the huge cracks detected the day before. But the manager told us: Unless you go in, you won't get paid, and you'll lose your job. So we entered, she says. Rescuers discovered her the next day, crushed beneath a beam.

Rebecca received $120 in compensation and free medical care. She's awaiting an additional one million taka - or $12,000 - that the government promised for the grievously injured. It's a considerable amount in one of the poorest countries in Asia, but Rebecca's doleful eyes flash with anger as she considers the sum.

Does $12,000, does million taka begin to compensate you?

KHATUN: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: Rebecca says: Seven members of my family worked there. Just two of us are alive. I've lost my limbs. How can $12,000 ever be enough, she says.

In a bed nearby, 23-year-old Rojina Akter's right leg weeps with wounds from the disaster. She earned $65 a month as a sewer's assistant. The minimum wage for Bangladesh's garment workers is $37 a month.

ROJINA AKTER: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: We are poor. We work to live, she says. We entered the factory because we needed to be paid. But the government should have overseen the construction of Rana Plaza. It was built on marshy land, she says, and the top three floors were added illegally.

Gowher Rizvi, adviser to the prime minister, says just days before the collapse, the Cabinet had agreed to strengthen enforcement of building codes and workers' rights - changes now before parliament.

GOWHER RIZVI: Garment industries is the goose that lays the golden egg, and we cannot afford to, nor will we allow it to be killed. And therefore, we are going to take every possible measure.

MCCARTHY: Including, Rizvi says, letting workers freely unionize. Only a fraction of the country's 5,000 garment factories have unions. Labor rights activist Aminul Islam was killed last year in what was widely regarded as a warning against organizing Bangladesh's powerful apparel industry, which accounts for 80 percent of the country's foreign exports.

Kalpona Akter of the Bangladeshi Center for Worker Solidarity began sewing in what she calls sweatshops when she was 12. She's been fired, blacklisted and jailed for trying to unionize.

KALPONA AKTER: We need these jobs, but we want these jobs with dignity. We want a decent wage, safe working place and we want union voice in our workplace. We are not talking about you have to give us $15 per hour, but we don't want 24 cents per hour.

MCCARTHY: Gowher Rizvi says one problem has been the very body that governs the $19 billion industry: the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association.

RIZVI: In fact, BGME is a very powerful organization, a powerful lobby, and has often managed to get away from scrutiny and control well outside the laws.

MCCARTHY: But he says new legislation will bring it under greater control.

RIZVI: And even more so, BGME is aware that buyers will flee away from Bangladesh unless and until they are more amenable to workers' conditions, workers' welfare.

MCCARTHY: The BGMEA says it's given a million dollars compensation to Rana Plaza victims. And its president, Atiqul Islam, sounds like a convert on the question of workers unionizing. He says if they can protect their rights and we can protect our business, everyone wins.

ATIQUL ISLAM: I'm telling you, if anyone comes to us, they want to do the trade union - again, I'm saying the legal way - definitely, we are welcoming that.

MCCARTHY: Islam says Rana Plaza forced all stakeholders to change their mentality. But will the manufacturers group urge Western retailers to pay more for their clothing, a move labor organizers say could increase workers' wages? I put the question to the BGMEA president.

You can sit down with the retailers, the owners and exporters and say, look. We need to pay people more money here.

ISLAM: Yeah, that's what I'm saying that. It's a paradigm shift. We are also - that.

MCCARTHY: Are you doing it?

ISLAM: It cannot do it overnight. Things is coming now - the situation is coming now. It is the time to do these kind of things.

MCCARTHY: This week, 70 retailers, mostly European, signed a binding accord for independent inspections of factories and agreed to finance fire and safety upgrades. Today, Wal-Mart announced a five-year binding initiative with 17 brands and suppliers. The company says the Bangladesh Worker Safety Initiative sets aggressive timelines and accountability for third-party inspections, training and worker empowerment. In a statement, Wal-Mart said: We believe companies and government have a responsibility to ensure the tragedies like those in Bangladesh do not happen again.

Labor rights organizer Kalpona Akter recently told Wal-Mart shareholders that the world's biggest retailer had an ethical obligation to use its leverage to improve workers' conditions.

AKTER: Because these will save our workers' lives. I think it is more than high time for them to act right. Those profits should not be making, you know, out of workers' blood and sweat.

MCCARTHY: Back at the hospital, Rojina Akter's mother dabs medicine on her daughter's wounded leg. Rana Plaza traumatized Rojina's mind, as well as her body. She has nightmares of the hospital caving in. But the disaster has not diminished her dreams.

AKTER: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: I'm planning to buy a plot of land to farm with the money I received from generous donors, she says. One man gave me a sewing machine and told me: Get well, and don't ever go back to a factory.

But Rojina is anxious to get back home to her simple corrugated tin shed, where at least, she says, it's safe.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.