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A devastating building collapse in Bangladesh last April exposed a reality in that nation's garment industry. Abysmal safety conditions in factories put workers at risk every day. Now, another reality: Victims of the disaster may work in an industry that wields great economic power, and yet they're finding it hard to get help putting their lives back together.

NPR's Julie McCarthy traveled to Bangladesh, and she filed this report.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC AND CAR HORNS)

JULIE MCCARTHY, BYLINE: On this traffic-clogged, garbage-strewn street 40 minutes from central Dhaka, there is a gap in the buildings. What once stood here was Rana Plaza, a testament to the global demand for cheap clothes. It housed five clothing factories, employing 3,000 workers. On an April morning, when the building buckled, more than a thousand people were killed in the deadliest disaster in the history of the garment industry.

The wreckage is cleared. What remains are the ruined lives of victims who survived and languish in hospitals, limbless and in pain. Most are women.

MCCARTHY: Petite and raven-haired Rebecca Khatun is splayed across a hospital bed in a ward lined with rows of Rana Plaza victims. A bandaged stump just below her left hip rests beneath mosquito netting, all that remains of her leg. An army of cockroaches marches along the metal bed, one more indignity in this calamity that has claimed five members of her family.

REBECCA KHATUN: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: My mother, grandmother and two cousins were all working inside the factory that day. But there is no trace of them. Only the body parts of a fifth relative were found.

KHATUN: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: I lost my left leg and right foot, she gently weeps, but it's even more painful that my mother is lost from my life.

The daughter-mother team worked side-by-side at the Ether Tex garment factory operating on the fifth floor.

KHATUN: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: On the morning of the collapse, Rebecca says: We didn't want to enter the building because of the huge cracks detected the day before. But the manager told us: Unless you go in, you won't get paid, and you'll lose your job. So we entered, she says. Rescuers discovered her the next day, crushed beneath a beam.

Rebecca received $120 in compensation and free medical care. She's awaiting an additional one million taka - or $12,000 - that the government promised for the grievously injured. It's a considerable amount in one of the poorest countries in Asia, but Rebecca's doleful eyes flash with anger as she considers the sum.

Does $12,000, does million taka begin to compensate you?

KHATUN: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: Rebecca says: Seven members of my family worked there. Just two of us are alive. I've lost my limbs. How can $12,000 ever be enough, she says.

In a bed nearby, 23-year-old Rojina Akter's right leg weeps with wounds from the disaster. She earned $65 a month as a sewer's assistant. The minimum wage for Bangladesh's garment workers is $37 a month.

ROJINA AKTER: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: We are poor. We work to live, she says. We entered the factory because we needed to be paid. But the government should have overseen the construction of Rana Plaza. It was built on marshy land, she says, and the top three floors were added illegally.

Gowher Rizvi, adviser to the prime minister, says just days before the collapse, the Cabinet had agreed to strengthen enforcement of building codes and workers' rights - changes now before parliament.

GOWHER RIZVI: Garment industries is the goose that lays the golden egg, and we cannot afford to, nor will we allow it to be killed. And therefore, we are going to take every possible measure.

MCCARTHY: Including, Rizvi says, letting workers freely unionize. Only a fraction of the country's 5,000 garment factories have unions. Labor rights activist Aminul Islam was killed last year in what was widely regarded as a warning against organizing Bangladesh's powerful apparel industry, which accounts for 80 percent of the country's foreign exports.

Kalpona Akter of the Bangladeshi Center for Worker Solidarity began sewing in what she calls sweatshops when she was 12. She's been fired, blacklisted and jailed for trying to unionize.

KALPONA AKTER: We need these jobs, but we want these jobs with dignity. We want a decent wage, safe working place and we want union voice in our workplace. We are not talking about you have to give us $15 per hour, but we don't want 24 cents per hour.

MCCARTHY: Gowher Rizvi says one problem has been the very body that governs the $19 billion industry: the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association.

RIZVI: In fact, BGME is a very powerful organization, a powerful lobby, and has often managed to get away from scrutiny and control well outside the laws.

MCCARTHY: But he says new legislation will bring it under greater control.

RIZVI: And even more so, BGME is aware that buyers will flee away from Bangladesh unless and until they are more amenable to workers' conditions, workers' welfare.

MCCARTHY: The BGMEA says it's given a million dollars compensation to Rana Plaza victims. And its president, Atiqul Islam, sounds like a convert on the question of workers unionizing. He says if they can protect their rights and we can protect our business, everyone wins.

ATIQUL ISLAM: I'm telling you, if anyone comes to us, they want to do the trade union - again, I'm saying the legal way - definitely, we are welcoming that.

MCCARTHY: Islam says Rana Plaza forced all stakeholders to change their mentality. But will the manufacturers group urge Western retailers to pay more for their clothing, a move labor organizers say could increase workers' wages? I put the question to the BGMEA president.

You can sit down with the retailers, the owners and exporters and say, look. We need to pay people more money here.

ISLAM: Yeah, that's what I'm saying that. It's a paradigm shift. We are also - that.

MCCARTHY: Are you doing it?

ISLAM: It cannot do it overnight. Things is coming now - the situation is coming now. It is the time to do these kind of things.

MCCARTHY: This week, 70 retailers, mostly European, signed a binding accord for independent inspections of factories and agreed to finance fire and safety upgrades. Today, Wal-Mart announced a five-year binding initiative with 17 brands and suppliers. The company says the Bangladesh Worker Safety Initiative sets aggressive timelines and accountability for third-party inspections, training and worker empowerment. In a statement, Wal-Mart said: We believe companies and government have a responsibility to ensure the tragedies like those in Bangladesh do not happen again.

Labor rights organizer Kalpona Akter recently told Wal-Mart shareholders that the world's biggest retailer had an ethical obligation to use its leverage to improve workers' conditions.

AKTER: Because these will save our workers' lives. I think it is more than high time for them to act right. Those profits should not be making, you know, out of workers' blood and sweat.

MCCARTHY: Back at the hospital, Rojina Akter's mother dabs medicine on her daughter's wounded leg. Rana Plaza traumatized Rojina's mind, as well as her body. She has nightmares of the hospital caving in. But the disaster has not diminished her dreams.

AKTER: (Foreign language spoken)

MCCARTHY: I'm planning to buy a plot of land to farm with the money I received from generous donors, she says. One man gave me a sewing machine and told me: Get well, and don't ever go back to a factory.

But Rojina is anxious to get back home to her simple corrugated tin shed, where at least, she says, it's safe.

Julie McCarthy, NPR News.

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