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Bangladesh workers' lives collapse along with factory building

Bangladesh factory casualty list
Part of the list of injuries suffered by workers in the Rana Plaza factory collapse. (Source: Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights)

“My name is Rebeka and I am 22 years old.”

So begins a tale of tragedy that has no end for a Bangladeshi worker who was forced into the catastrophically flawed Rana Plaza factory building that collapsed last month, killing more than 800 of her co-workers.

You might think that Rebeka is one of the lucky ones. She was rescued after more than a day of pain and terror and is now in the Dhaka Orthopedic Hospital. But her left leg and right foot were amputated, and her life is blighted by terrible injuries from being buried under tons of rubble.  

A Bangladeshi woman holds a photograph of her missing daughter at a makeshift morgue. (AP Photo/Ismail Ferdous)

For hundreds like her, there was no choice but to go to work, even after big cracks were found in the factory walls.  But workers' objections were overruled by their bosses, Rebeka told local advocates from her hospital bed. “They forced us to work, saying that they would not pay our wages for the month of April…they also hired thugs to terrorize us into going to work.”

Forty-five minutes after she started up her sewing machine, the mechanic switched on the generator whose vibrations reportedly shattered the structurally unsound building. Rebekah’s floor had been added onto foundations never meant for heavy machinery.

“The whole building bent to the back side and fell apart,” she recalls. “After some time, I saw a concrete beam on top of both my legs. Groaning in extreme pain, I started weeping and calling out to Allah to rescue me.”

When help finally came a day later, both her legs were so badly crushed and infected from the rat-infested rubble that she agreed to amputation.

“When I sleep, I dream that the building is falling on me again. That I’m crushed and dead. For the rest of my life I will be severely handicapped. My life is over. It would have been far better to die in the building collapse than having to live with such a sad fate.”

It gets worse.  Barbara Briggs of the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights – an international advocacy group – is in close touch with the group’s Bangladesh office. It told her that “a lot of people who are severely injured are being kicked out of hospitals to make way for those who are more severely injured.”

In impoverished Bangladesh, those in hospital often have to pay for basics like plasma. Once they’re discharged they are completely on their own, living in hovels without sanitation, clean water or proper ventilation. Or any benefits to pay for drugs or
medical care. The institute is launching a fund-raising drive to support destitute survivors.

A handful of international brands, like Canada’s Joe Fresh, have pledged to pay compensation.

But, Briggs says, “workers are still fighting to get their month’s wages for April. They should legally get 120 days severance pay, but the private sector is in charge of regulating the garment industry and it isn’t paying them."

The industry's Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association finally began disbursing wages on Tuesday, but how many are still waiting is unclear.

The country is renowned for its rock-bottom wages and don’t-ask-don’t-tell working conditions. That makes Bangladesh one of the world’s most attractive sites for globalized production – the current winner of a decades-long race to the bottom.

But here’s the kicker: “it would cost about $3 billion to make those work places safer,” says economist William Black of University of Missouri-Kansas, an expert in white collar crime. “But it won’t happen because it takes away that ‘competitive advantage.’

“What that means is it was never really cheaper to make clothes in Bangladesh than in the West – they’ve simply transferred the cost to the workers.”

The cost is clear on the list of dead and injured workers that grows daily.

Disposable clothes. Disposable lives. And now, a global disposable society.

READ MORE: Bangladesh factory collapse: Death toll climbs past 800

Olivia Ward has covered conflicts, politics and human rights from the former Soviet Union to the Middle East and South Asia, winning national and international awards.


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