April 18

Jason Motlagh is a writer, photographer and filmmaker. Reporting for this essay and for “The Ghosts of Rana Plaza,” featured in the spring issue of the Virginia Quarterly Review, was supported by a grant from the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

When I met Rajina Aktar in February of last year, her eyes were still red and her memory still fuzzy from the toxic smoke that had knocked her unconscious three weeks earlier. The 15-year-old had been sewing pockets onto winter jackets when a fire broke out at Smart Export Garments, an illegal factory on the outskirts of Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. Walking through the ruins, I saw what appeared to be handprints and scratch marks on the walls of the stairwell where eight workers were crushed to death as 350 people tried to push through a single locked exit.

Someone had managed to carry Aktar to safety. In the dank basement room where she lived, she told me that with four relatives to support and no education, she expected to return to the assembly line as soon as she recovered. “There is nothing else,” she said.

Fires in the factories of Bangladesh’s $20 billion garment export industry were occurring an average of two to three times a week then. I wrote for The Washington Post that dangerous conditions weren’t likely to improve as long as major Western companies continued to send high-volume orders and consumers continued to demand the lowest possible prices.

Then came Rana Plaza. When the eight-story building collapsed on April 24, the scale of suffering — more than 1,134 killed, 2,515 injured — seemed too great for even the most apathetic companies and governments to ignore. Haunting imagery fueled protests around the world. Parallels were drawn to the Triangle Shirtwaist fire in 1911, when the deaths of 146 garment workers in a New York City factory locked by its owners led to lasting safety reforms.

Indeed, a year later, Bangladesh’s garment industry has improved. More than 150 mostly European companies have signed the legally binding Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, while 26 companies, most of them American, including Wal-Mart, Sears and Gap, have joined a separate alliance that commits them to invest in safety upgrades (and limits their liability when things go wrong). The factories they source from are gradually being upgraded, and monitoring is getting better. Meanwhile, foreign government pressure, including the suspension of U.S. trade privileges for Bangladesh, helped lead to new labor laws that, at face value, protect workers by making it easier for them to organize. Emboldened workers are now speaking out against bad conditions, walking out if necessary. And their collective efforts have secured a minimum-wage increase that will provide some financial security.

But we’d be foolish to believe that the industry has thoroughly cleaned up its act or that it will continue to try to as Western concern flags.

Reports from independent factory inspections conducted late last year painted a worrisome picture. Dangerously heavy storage loads sent cracks down walls and stressed sagging support beams. In some cases, basic fire equipment was missing, and exit routes didn’t lead outside. One of the best factories in the country — a client of Hugo Boss, Marks & Spencer and PVH, the parent company of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger — received multiple citations.

And those are the front-line factories. The open secret in Bangladesh is that there’s a vast underworld of off-the-books operations that backstop the export industry. Sandwiched inside apartment buildings, in basements and on rooftops, underpaid and overworked employees finish orders from larger companies under fierce pressure to stay apace with fast fashion. Hidden from view, bosses are free to abuse workers and cut corners on safety.

One afternoon last September, I snuck inside a signless Dhaka factory to see for myself. On a packed floor without windows, workers ironed T-shirts beneath droning fans and fluorescent lighting. In the corner, a man affixed tags to pink children’s jumpsuits priced at 5 pounds sterling. Though I had chosen the factory at random, the fire code violations were plenty: Evacuation maps were covered with flyers, hoses were missing from their hinges, stacks of boxes and piles of synthetic fabric blocked exits. It was not hard to imagine the worst.

A top garment producer admitted to me that unauthorized subcontracting remains standard practice across the industry. With so many variables threatening to disrupt production — political violence, strikes, electrical breakdowns — he still farms out some work to meet deadlines. “There will be subcontracting every day — you cannot stop it,” he told me in his posh headquarters, flanked by a wall of framed audit certificates commending his company. “Officially, the brands will say ‘No more,’ that they are controlling it. But unofficially, it will always happen, and they know it.”

The U.S. government is guilty of the same negligence. While President Obama espouses workers’ rights, our military is sourcing clothing from sweatshops, according to a report from the International Labor Rights Forum. Military retail stores known as exchanges purchase millions of dollars worth of apparel from Bangladesh each year without vetting supply chains. Instead, they rely on companies with dubious track records to ensure safety compliance. That is why clothing designs bearing the Marine Corps logo were found among the ashes at Tazreen Fashions, where 112 workers died in a fire in November 2012. The Marines responded by mandating that all licensees sign the safety accord, but a legislative measure that would have required exchanges associated with the other branches of the military to do the same was stripped out of the defense spending bill last year.

Another sign of diminished Western concern: The companies that sourced from Rana Plaza have deposited only $17 million of a targeted $40 million into a relief fund to pay medical bills, lost wages and other compensation to the roughly 4,000 victims, including survivors of the factory collapse and the families of the dead. There is no mechanism to ensure that they will reach the goal, nor is there a timetable for when all payments will be paid.

Late last summer, when I went to the site where the industrial building once stood, a swarm of victims’ relatives surrounded me, clutching posters of their missing, demanding answers — and payment — for their losses. My translator tried to explain that I was a reporter, but few could hear for the shouting.

One of them was Lutfer Rahman, now a single father of two. His asthma had forced him to give up his job as a rickshaw driver. So his wife, Rina, had become the family breadwinner, working as a factory helper for $62 a month. It was the younger daughter, Arifa, 12, who scanned rows of bodies laid out at a nearby school and identified her mother’s remains. Rina was buried in an overgrown plot without a headstone. With just $2,500 from a government fund — a fraction of what many amputees were paid — Lutfer needed to save money to raise his girls. How could a life could be worth so little? he asked.

To date, none of Rana Plaza’s victims have received the full amount of promised compensation, while victims of other deadly accidents go largely ignored.

The long-term welfare of garment workers and their families will ultimately depend on the follow-through of foreign brands whose buying power shapes the industry. If the past is any indication, for all the pledges and codes of conduct, profit-driven companies will get away with what they can when left to their own devices. Media coverage and consumer outrage in the wake of tragedy are a hedge against this.

I still think of Rajina Aktar, the 15-year-old girl with bloodshot eyes. Before leaving Dhaka in September, I went back to her home to see how she was faring. The apartment block had been torn down. Had she left the capital or moved on to another factory? For two hours, I searched the neighborhood without any luck, until I met another garment worker who said she knew her. But it turns out Rajina Aktar is a common name, and the person she described was not the same girl. There are scores more like her on the bleak margins of this industry. If Rana Plaza is to be a turning point, we must bear in mind the price of indifference every time we make a purchase.

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