Last Friday, on a warm afternoon in Washington, D.C., I sat a few blocks from the White House with a woman named Kalpona Akter. Akter has many gifts, but one is particularly unusual. Over the years, she has perfected the art of maneuvering into Bangladeshi garment factories piled high with dead young people—factories that caught ablaze or collapsed (“like a human sandwich,” she says) due to reckless construction. Once inside, she takes photographs of the clothing scraps that she finds amidst the debris. Then she sends the pictures around the world, so that American consumers can see the retailers behind the charred labels: Walmart, Sears, a Sean Combs fashion line, and more.
A week ago, the world learned of the horrific collapse of Rana Plaza, an eight-story, concrete-and-glass building that housed at least five garment factories, near Dhaka, Bangladesh. When it happened, Akter, who is the executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, was touring America to speak about the safety crisis plaguing her country’s young garment workers. (Akter used to sew apparel in the factories; she started work at the age of twelve.) If the timing of her trip was apt, it was also bad; it left her weeping in a Starbucks near Farragut Square as she got grim updates from the Dhaka suburb of Savar. “I want to be there,” she told me over tea. “I need to be there.”
Over the weekend, a fire had broken out in the Rana rubble, even as rescue workers still searched for bodies. “At first, my friends began to write me, saying, Eight are dead, Nine are dead at a factory,” she told me. “Then it was forty or fifty. Now we are up to three hundred and four.” By Wednesday, the death toll had cleared four hundred, rendering it the single most lethal incident in the history of the garment industry. A massive crowd of angry protestors chanted, “Hang him! Hang him!” at Rana Plaza’s owner as he arrived in a Dhaka court on Monday; he and seven others linked to the illegally constructed building have been arrested, and he wore a bulletproof vest and a helmet for his public appearance.
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“I know exactly what you’ll do when you get home,” said Akter’s travel companion, a slender twenty-four-year-old Bangladeshi garment worker named Sumi Abedin, who sat with us. “You are going to drop your bags and run straight to Rana Plaza.”
Akter nodded her head at Abedin, who wore a green sweater and a gold nose ring. “Of course.”
Last November, Abedin was sewing clothing for Walmart and other American brands at a factory called Tazreen Fashions, on the outskirts of Dhaka, when she heard a colleague yell, “Fire!” She thought of sprinting toward the stairs when the factory owner said, “He is lying,” and padlocked the doors. As the air of Tazreen Fashions filled with dark smoke, Abedin told me, “I was running around the factory floor, screaming, crying for help.” After the power went out, she followed the dim light of other workers’ cell phones to the factory’s third production floor, where she saw a man removing the bars from a window. She decided to leap.
“I didn’t jump to save my life,” she told me, much as she has told reporters, students, and anyone who would listen over the past several weeks of touring the country. “I jumped to save my body, because if I stayed inside the factory I would burn to ash, and my family wouldn’t be able to identify my body.” When she landed, she broke her foot and arm. She considers herself lucky; a hundred and twelve of her colleagues died in the Tazreen fire. The parallels to New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, in 1911, where doors were locked and a hundred and forty-six workers died in the space of twenty minutes, are obvious.
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Deaths in modern garment factories tend to be different from plane crashes or many other catastrophic traumas in the slow-motion extravagance of their pain. For minutes, or even hours, workers’ lungs fill up with smoke. For days, even a week, workers struggle to survive under rubble until someone digs them out. Akter told me about a mother in a rural village who came to her for help after Tazreen. During that fire, the woman had gotten a call from her twenty-four-year-old son, a garment worker. “Mom,” he’d said, “there is a fire in the factory. I’m trying my best to escape, but smoke is filling my lungs.”
“Run to the stairs!” his mother told him, according to Akter. “Run to the window, and I’ll hop on a bus to come and get you.”
Ten minutes later, he called again. The stairs were jammed by a stampede. “Mom, I’m trying my best. There is no way I can get out.”
“Go to the toilet,” his mother told him, “and run the water so that it clears the smoke and you can breathe.” The son said, “O.K., I’m doing that.” He tried this, without luck, then returned to the factory floor, where his colleagues’ bodies were piling up in the dark.
Finally, he called home once more. This time, he rang with an apology. “Mom,” he cried, “it will be my last call—I’m dying for sure. I am sorry. I tried my best. I cannot breathe.” He wanted to convey a message. “I’m removing my shirt from my body, and I will tie it to my waist, so you can find me.” So he ripped off his shirt, made a knot around his torso, and collapsed so as to be found the next day by his mother.
Kalpona Akter is now trying to help his family receive compensation; the process has been slow, and American companies have been reluctant to coöperate, she says. But Akter wants more than just compensation for the survivors and their families: she wants profitable companies like Gap and Walmart to sign on to the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement, and to ensure that their subcontractors pay more than the standard, barely livable fifty-five dollars per month. In Bangladesh, the garment industry brings in more than twenty billion dollars each year. Most of its source companies do not require, or allow, independent monitoring of their factories. Watching the Rana Plaza tragedy unfold, Akter can’t help but think of the many promises she’s heard from the government before, even recently. “After Tazreen, they said, ‘Yes, we’ll check out all the factories and make sure they are safe,’ ” she told me. “And nothing happened.”
Now hundreds of desperate parents are arriving to search for their daughters and sons at Rana Plaza. The bodies of the newly dead, many of whom were brightly clad young women in their teens and twenties, have been taken to a local high school in Savar, where their families can line up to look among them.
This past weekend, after our meeting, Akter and Abedin flew back to Bangladesh to do what they could. Akter is likely en route now to the still-smoldering factory, to sort through the ruins. She will look for U.S. retailers’ records and tags. She will do what she did after the Tazreen fire that Sumi Abedin escaped and that the young man who tore off his shirt did not: she will try to name names, and will demand signatures on a the binding Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement.
“Already, I heard they found Benetton,” she told me. “After the Tazreen fire, it was a cemetery, human bodies all over the floor. And now we have another one … American companies, they know this is happening. We’ve told them: Remember these human faces. You killed these girls.”
Photograph by Munir Uz Zaman/AFP/Getty.
Source: New Yorker