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Woman rescued from collapsed garment factory in Bangladesh after 17 days

A woman was rescued Friday in Bangladesh after surviving 17 days trapped beneath the ruins of a textile factory that collapsed last month, reports the Associated Press:

Reshma Begum was in such good shape she was able to walk, according to one rescuer. She said she survived on dried food and bottled water. She was discovered near a Muslim prayer room in the basement of the eight-story Rana Plaza building, where crews have been focused on recovering bodies, not rescuing survivors, since late April.

“I heard voices of the rescue workers for the past several days. I kept hitting the wreckage with sticks and rods just to attract their attention,” she told the private Somoy TV from her hospital bed as doctors and nurses milled about, giving her saline and checking her condition.

“No one heard me. It was so bad for me. I never dreamed I’d see the daylight again,” she said.

Crews have removed more than 1,000 bodies from the wreckage so far. The collapse of the building was followed earlier this week by a fire at another garment factory that killed eight people. Fires are common in Bangladesh’s textile industry, including one that broke out in November and another in January, writes Jason Motlagh:

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. . .

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. (Read the rest of the article here.)

Workers at factories have been prevented from forming unions, which is one reason why they have not been able to demand safer working conditions, Amy Kazmin reports:

On paper, Bangladeshi workers do have the legal right to form unions and collectively bargain with factory owners. In reality, attempts to unionize the country’s garment workers have been ruthlessly suppressed, with any activist workers hounded out of their jobs, blacklisted or worse, with tacit government approval.

Last year, Aminul Islam, a prominent garment worker-turned-labor organizer who had complained of harassment by security forces, was killed, his body — bearing marks of torture — dumped on a highway. His killers were never identified, but labor groups believe his murder was intended to warn potential labor agitators. . .

Hundreds of factories were shut down for about a week last year after protests by workers demanding another increase, but the demonstrations were eventually quelled with tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons. Bangladesh now has a special security force, the industrial police, dedicated to stifling labor unrest. (Read the rest of the article here.)

Max Ehrenfreund writes for Wonkblog and compiles Wonkbook, a daily policy newsletter. You can subscribe here. Before joining The Washington Post, Ehrenfreund wrote for the Washington Monthly and The Sacramento Bee.

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