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Saiful Islam Nasar poses in front of the rubble of a building collapse in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh Monday April 2013. Nasar, a mechanical engineer is one of hordes of volunteers who came to Savar to help with the rescue effort. They get no funding, have no training and buy their supplies themselves. They have featured largely in efforts to save those who were crushed in the worst disaster to hit Bangladesh’s $20 billion a year garment industry.(AP Photo/Ismail Ferdous)
Surviving hell in a Bangladesh factory collapse
First Published Apr 29 2013 07:44 pm • Last Updated Apr 29 2013 07:45 pm

Savar, Bangladesh • 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.

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"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 downward spiral of keeping costs down, 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.


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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.

So for a woman like Merina, who like many Bangladeshis goes by one name only, there are generations of culture telling her not to question a command to go back to work.

When some factory workers did speak up Wednesday morning, they were reminded that the end of the month — and their paychecks — were coming soon. The message was clear: If you don’t work, you won’t get paid.

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