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1 year after factory collapse, Bangladeshis suffer

Thursday - 4/24/2014, 9:04am  ET

A Bangladeshi woman holds a candle with a portrait of a missing relative, victim of last year’s Rana Plaza building collapse, during a gathering to pay tributes on the eve of the tragedy in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh, Wednesday, April 23, 2014. More than 1,100 people were killed when the illegally constructed, 8-storey building collapsed on April 24, 2013, in a heap along with thousands of workers in the five garment factories in the building. Placard reads “Farzana, Rana Plaza missing.” (AP Photo/A.M. Ahad)

JULHAS ALAM
Associated Press

SAVAR, Bangladesh (AP) -- One year after the Rana Plaza garment factory collapsed in a pile of concrete slabs and twisted metal, Bangladeshi seamstress Shefali says she would rather starve to death than return to factory work.

Like many survivors of the worst disaster the garment industry has ever seen, 18-year-old Shefali, who goes by one name, says she suffers from depression and has flashbacks of the catastrophe that killed more than 1,100 people. She was injured in the collapse that happened a year ago Thursday and has lingering back pain.

And despite efforts by Western brands to improve safety at the Bangladeshi factories that produce their clothes, Shefali fears nothing good will trickle down the poorest of the poor. The country has one of the lowest minimum wages in the world -- about $66 a month -- while churning out goods for some of the world's leading retailers.

"We die, we suffer, nobody takes care of us," Shefali said earlier this month as she toured the site of the collapse, now a barren, fenced-off expanse. She hasn't started working again and stays at home with her parents.

"I had dreams of getting married, having my own family," she said. "But now everything looks impossible."

There have been some significant developments. The owner of the illegally constructed Rana Plaza building is behind bars, pending an investigation, but there has been no word on when he will be put on trial. The owners of the five factories operating inside the building also have been detained.

Authorities have appointed more factory inspectors, plan to appoint more, and say they aim to ensure that no new factories are built without following proper safety regulations.

But problems remain. According to Human Rights Watch, the international companies that sourced garments from five factories operating in the Rana Plaza building are not contributing enough to the trust fund set up to support survivors and the families of those who died.

"One year after Rana Plaza collapsed, far too many victims and their families are at serious risk of destitution," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at the organization. "International garment brands should be helping the injured and the dependents of dead workers who manufactured their clothes."

The target for the fund, chaired by the International Labor Organization, is $40 million, but only $15 million has been raised so far, HRW said. Retailers Bonmarche, El Corte Ingles, Loblaw and Primark have all pledged money.

Mojtaba Kazazi, a former U.N. official who heads a committee to execute the fund, said they have started disbursing 50,000 takas ($640) as initial payments to the victims' families.

The very structure of Bangladesh's garment industry is also viewed as problematic.

According to a recent study by New York University's Stern School of Business, an "essential feature" of the sector involves factories subcontracting work to other workshops that have even worse conditions.

"In the absence of regulation by the government of Bangladesh, the prevalence of indirect sourcing has resulted in a supply chain driven by the pursuit of lowest nominal costs," said Sarah Labowitz, co-director of the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights and co-author of the report. "That means that factories receiving subcontracts are operating on razor-thin margins that leave concerns about safety and workers' rights perpetually unaddressed."

Many garment workers are skeptical that there will be any lasting change.

When the collapse occurred on April 24, 2013, thousands of Bangladeshis were toiling inside the Rana Plaza in Savar, the center of the country's $20 billion garment industry.

A violent jolt shook the floors around 9 a.m. Then the eight-story building gave a deafening groan, the pillars gave way and the entire structure went down in a heap with terrifying speed.

Investigators say a host of factors contributed to its collapse: It was overloaded with machines and generators, constructed on swampy land, and the owner added floors in violation of the original building plan.

The final death toll was 1,135 people, with thousands more rescued from the wreckage. Rescuers found Reshma Begum 17 days after the collapse, and authorities say her survival was miraculous.

When the building began crumble around her, Begum said she raced down a stairwell into the basement, where she became trapped near a wide pocket that allowed her to survive.

She found some dried food and bottles of water that saved her life.

Although her story has a happy ending -- she now works in an international hotel in Dhaka's upscale Gulshan area -- Begum is still haunted by the disaster.

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