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Surviving hell in a Bangladesh factory collapse

Tuesday - 4/30/2013, 7:58am  ET

People stand next to a body bag after search and rescue operations on the collapsed garment factory building Monday evening April 29, 2013 in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh. Rescue workers in Bangladesh gave up hopes of finding any more survivors in the remains of a building that collapsed five days ago, and began using heavy machinery on Monday to dislodge the rubble and look for bodies -- mostly of workers in garment factories there. At least 381 people were killed when the illegally constructed, 8-story Rana Plaza collapsed in a heap on Wednesday morning along with thousands of workers in the five garment factories in the building.(AP Photo/Ismail Ferdous)

CHRIS BLAKE
Associated Press

SAVAR, Bangladesh (AP) -- Merina was so tired. It had been three days since the garment factory where she worked had collapsed around her, three days since she'd moved more than a few inches. In that time she'd had nothing to eat and just a few sips of water. The cries for help had long since subsided. The moans of the injured had gone silent.

It was fatigue she feared the most. If sleep took her, Merina was certain she would never wake up.

"I can't fall asleep," the 21-year-old thought to herself, her face inches from a concrete slab that had once been the ceiling above her. She'd spent seven years working beneath that ceiling, sewing T-shirts and pants destined for stores from Paris to Los Angeles. She worked 14 hours a day, six days a week, with her two sisters. She made the equivalent of about $16 a week.

Now she lay on her back in the sweltering heat, worrying for her sisters and herself. And as the bodies of her former coworkers began to rot, the stench filled the darkness.

____

The eight-story, concrete-and-glass Rana Plaza was one of hundreds of similar buildings in the crowded, potholed streets of Savar, an industrial suburb of Bangladesh's capital and the center of the country's $20 billion garment industry. If Bangladesh remains one of the world's poorest nations, it is no longer a complete economic cripple. Instead, it turned its poverty to its advantage, heralding workers who make some of the world's lowest wages and attracting some of the world's leading brands.

But this same economic miracle has plunged Bangladesh into a vicious descending spiral of keeping down costs, as major retailers compete for customers who want ever cheaper clothes. It is the workers who often pay the price in terms of safety and labor conditions.

The trouble at Rana Plaza began Tuesday morning, when workers spotted long cracks in at least one of the building's concrete pillars. The trails of chipped plaster led to a chunk of concrete, about the size of a shoe box, that had broken away. The police were called. Inspectors came to check on the building, which housed shops on the lower floors and five crowded clothing factories on the upper ones.

At 10 a.m., the 3,200 garment workers were told to leave early for lunch. At 2 p.m., they were told to leave for the day. Few of the workers -- mostly migrants from desperately poor villages -- asked why. Some were told the building had unexplained electricity issues.

The best factory buildings are well-constructed and regularly inspected. The workers are trained what to do in case of an emergency.

Rana Plaza was not one of those buildings. The owner, Mohammed Sohel Rana, was a feared neighborhood political enforcer who had branched into real estate. In 2010, he was given a permit to build a five-story building on a piece of land that had once been a swamp. He built eight stories.

Rana came quickly after the crack was found. So did the police, some reporters and officials from the country's largest garment industry association.

Rana refused to close the building. "There is nothing serious," he said. The workers were told to return the next morning, as scheduled, at 8 a.m.

____

Merina, a petite woman with a round, girlish face and shoulder-length hair, never saw the crack.

She comes from Biltala, a tiny village in southwest Bangladesh, where there is electricity but little else. Her father is a landless laborer who grows rice and wheat on rented farmland, and, when he can, travels the seven hours by train to Dhaka to sell cucumbers, cauliflower and other vegetables on the street. When she was 15, she moved to Dhaka. Some of her aunts were already working in garment factories, and she quickly had a job.

For millions of Bangladeshis, the garment factories of Dhaka are a dream. Every year, at least 300,000 rural residents -- and perhaps as many as 500,000 -- migrate to the Dhaka area, already one of the most crowded cities on the planet.

Poverty remains the norm across most of rural Bangladesh, where less than 60 percent of adults are literate. To them, the steady wage of a garment factory -- even with minimum wage less than $40 a month -- is enough to start saving up for a scooter, or a dowry, or a better school for the next generation.

Merina's two sisters joined her in Savar, where women make up the vast majority of the factory workers. Here, the poor learn quickly that it is not their role to question orders. And girls learn quickly that nearly all decisions are made by men.

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