Rajina Aktar was sewing pockets into a pile of winter jackets bound for Europe when the fire’s toxic smoke knocked her out on a second-story floor.

In a pitch-dark panic that saw more than 350 people bolt for a single exit, someone carried the 15-year-old girl to safety. Eight others were trampled to death on the staircase, a few steps shy of daylight, in the Jan. 26 blaze at Smart Export Garments, an illegal factory on the outskirts of Bangaldesh’s capital.

Once again, foreign-brand labels were found among the burned-out wreckage, just as they had been in other episodes among a flurry of tragic fires that have set passions alight over the ugly underbelly of the country’s ready-made garment industry.

Garment making is the backbone of Bangladesh’s cash-strapped economy, accounting for annual exports worth $24.3 billion last year, about 80 percent of the country’s earnings. But the staggering frequency of lethal factory fires — which have claimed more than 500 lives since 2006 — shows that rising profits have not led to improvements in safety.

Most of the deaths have been in unlicensed factories that depend on subcontracted orders from bigger plants. Industry watchdogs say that fire-related deaths are an inevitable result of cost-cutting measures taken by garment makers under intense pressure from Western apparel companies to produce ever-larger quantities of clothes at rock-bottom prices.

Despite angry protests and pledges of reform, activists say that what remains in place amounts to risky business as usual.

“We expected big changes, and very quickly, but the reality is that nothing meaningful has happened,” says Kalpona Akter, a Bangladeshi labor leader and former child factory worker. “So far the government and foreign companies are all talk, no results; the unnecessary deaths continue.”

Little outside pressure

The majority of Bangladesh’s ready-made garment exports go to Europe, but nearly 25 percent are sent to the United States. Rights groups contend that major Western companies know that high-volume, low-cost orders will be farmed out to sweatshops that have no incentive to respect fire codes or workers rights.

“Bangladesh is the way it is because they have been rewarded by the industry,” Scott Nova, executive director of the Washington-based Workers Rights Consortium, said of the country’s garment makers. “It has the worst labor rights record, lowest wages and most dangerous factories. And the response of big western retailers has been to pour more business into the country.”

“The message to factory owners: keep doing what your doing,” he said.

After a deadly fire swept through the Tazreen garment factory on Nov. 24, big-box retailers Wal-Mart and Sears sought to distance themselves from the situation, claiming that orders had been subcontracted by local contractors without their knowledge.

Labor rights groups have urged top foreign buyers to sign an agreement that includes a binding commitment to ban subcontracting to at-risk facilities, finance renovations and fire-safety training and make audit results public.

So far, however, only PVH Corp., an American company that owns Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, and German retailer Tchibo have signed on. But the U.S. Trade Representative’s office has said it is weighing possible sanctions on Bangladesh’s duty-free benefits under a World Trade Organization rule that allows special treatment to poorer countries.

It’s widely agreed that efforts to improve conditions at the bottom of the chain in Bangladesh are complicated by official corruption, limited state resources and an excess of cheap labor in the world’s most-densely populated country. Despite a minimum wage of 18 cents an hour, tens of thousands of Bangladeshis are willing to work for even less money.

Trapped in blaze

A Washington Post reporter gained access recently to what is left of the Smart Export Garments factory. Found there were tags for several well-known European brands, including Bershka, a retailer owned by the Spanish firm Inditex, the world’s largest fashion group.

Subarna Begum, 28, a sewing-machine operator who escaped the January fire with her 5-year-old daughter via the roof, said many underage workers were present in the factory. Fire alarms and extinguishers were not, she and other witnesses said.

On the afternoon of the fire, they said, the main door to factory floor was locked, driving everyone toward a narrow emergency exit that was also locked. It was choked with bodies by the time guards arrived to open the gate.

The charred walls remain streaked with hand marks.

According to the Solidarity Center, an AFL-CIO training office in Dhaka that tracks fire-related accidents, the Smart Exports blaze was only one among 39 that have taken place in the three months since the Tazreen fire.

For the legions of mainly women who toil at the bottom of the industry, the risk of returning to factory work is trumped by urgent needs.

Rajina, the 15-year-old survivor, is a case in point: One month on, her eyes are bloodshot from the head trauma that occurred when she fell unconscious. Her memory is impaired, she said, and her lungs burn.

But pressure to make rent on the dank basement room she shares with four family members means she’ll have to start sewing again, and soon.

“I can’t go back to school now,” she said. “This is the only kind of work I can find.”