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Bangladesh factory fire victims want old jobs back

Ashraful Alam Tito / AP

Ratna Begum survived the deadly factory fire by jumping from a fifth-story window.

DHAKA, Bangladesh — As 112 of her co-workers died in a garment-factory fire, Dipa Akter got out by jumping from the third floor through a hole made by breaking apart an exhaust fan. Her left leg is wrapped in bandages and she has trouble walking.

Now she wants back in.

"If the factory owner reopens the factory sometime soon, we will work again here," the 19-year-old said. "If it's closed for long, we have to think of alternatives."


 

The Tazreen Fashions Ltd. factory had no emergency exits. Police are continuing to question three managers suspected of locking in the workers during the fire.

Clothes from major global brands including Wal-Mart and Disney were being produced at the factory, though the companies said the plant was considered high-risk and they had ordered subcontractors not to use it in recent months.

While major retailers whose products were found in the fire have disavowed the factory, the workers who survived have not. They can't afford to.

Factories like the one gutted Nov. 24 are a rare lifeline in this desperately poor country, and now many of the more than 1,200 surviving employees have no work and few prospects.

Fire sweeps clothing factory in Bangladesh

Akter spent 25 minutes trying to get down the smoke-filled stairs before jumping, which she said was "the only option other than being burned."

Despite her injuries and trauma, she needs the job. Without it, she said, she would either be a housemaid or jobless in her home village.

Almost one-third of Bangladesh's 150 million people live in extreme poverty. There are few formal jobs in villages, where about 70 percent of the population lives.

Garment work is one of the few paths to secure a stable income, collect some savings and send money to family — especially for young, uneducated rural women, who are already trained to make clothes at home.

Thousands of textile workers gathered in Bangladesh in protest factory conditions following a massive fire that killed 112 people. NBCNews.com's Dara Brown reports.

Sabotage to blame for factory fire, Bangladesh authorities say

The industry has given women in this Muslim-majority, conservative nation an accepted opportunity to leave their homes and join the main workforce.

"I have a life here." Akter said. "I have a timetable to wake up in the morning and I know when I should go to bed."

Akter made about 4,550 takas ($57) a month sewing pants, shirts and nightgowns. Her husband makes about the same at another factory, but she said it is impossible for them to survive just on his salary.

Thousands protest after Bangladesh fire traps workers, kills at least 112

The landlord is demanding rent and she has bills at a grocery shop.

"I am in big trouble because I don't have any savings," Akter said.

The government announced Saturday that it would give 200,000 takas ($2,500) to the families of those who died in the fire and 50,000 takas ($625) to the injured. It also said uninjured workers would get their November wages, but many employees are demanding four months' salary as compensation. It is not yet clear when, or even if, Tazreen will rebuild the factory.

"If I am not compensated, I have to start begging. I have to move to the street," said Ferdousy, a worker who uses only one name.

With overtime, the 20-year-old earned up to 7,000 takas ($87) a month from Tazreen as a sewing machine operator. She fled the factory unharmed by bolting out as soon as the fire alarm went off, ignoring her supervisors' insistence that she stay at her station.

But now she needs to work again, or to be compensated while the company rebuilds.

"I worked hard to support my family. I always tried to cross my production targets so I could earn extra money to support my family. But now I have no place to go," she said.

Ratna Begum, 30, who cannot walk without assistance, is too injured to go back to work for the foreseeable future and wonders how her family will afford rent, food, her medical bills and school for her two sons without her monthly pay of up to 5,000 takas ($62).

She jumped out of a fifth-floor window to escape the flames, thinking, "If I die, my family will at least get my body." 

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