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'Hundreds of buildings like this': Bangladesh factories geared to produce tragedy

Palash Khan / AP

A woman holds a photo of her son, who had been missing since the April 24 collapse of Rana Plaza near Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, on Friday. The collapse of the building, which housed garment factories, did not come as a shock to everyone.

Editor's note: This story includes a correction.

While Bangladeshis had a moment of joy Friday when one woman was pulled alive from the garment factory that collapsed, killing  more than 1,000, many fear a similar incident could easily happen again.

Working conditions are poor and regulations are routinely overlooked in Bangladesh, where standard wages can be as little as $51 per month. The tragedy at the Rana Plaza on the outskirts of Dhaka came exactly five months after another garment factory caught fire, killing 112 workers. And as recently as Thursday, eight people were killed when a fire swept through another clothing factory in the same city of Dhaka.  

Juel Nurrunabi worked at Rana Plaza for about 18 months. He was trapped in the rubble for six hours after the April 24 disaster. 

Despite suffering head and leg injuries, Nurrunabi said he survived because he was standing next to a pillar and counts himself as lucky.

“I heard a massive crumbling noise and then within around 10 seconds it was over,” he recalled. “We didn’t even have time to think or run.”

Andrew Biraj / Reuters

People try to rescue garment workers trapped under rubble at Rana Plaza after its April 24 collapse.

As a textile engineer, Nurrunabi had it better than most, he said.

Even then, conditions weren’t ideal, and he had recently complained about long hours, outdated equipment and a lack of air conditioning. The bosses said things would get better, but they didn’t, he said.

“The workers who stitched the clothes would never dare to ask the boss for better conditions. … They would be out that day,” Nurrunabi said. “We were all far too busy to worry about health and safety. That was for other people to think about.”

Garment-factory owners who had dealings with companies in the building were among those who had seen problems at Rana Plaza.

But Sohail, a manufacturer who did not want his last name used because he said it might cost him orders from foreign companies, said he "never really felt scared" while in the doomed site.

"There are hundreds of buildings like this across Dhaka," he said. "It’s quite normal. I have visited many garment factories where the building just doesn’t look right."

Sohail said he regularly went to Rana Plaza to buy stock left over from large foreign orders. “We knew the building had structural problems for the last six months,” he said.

Health and safety regulations for workers in the country’s $20-billion-a-year garment industry are widely known to be lax, despite requirements by U.S. and European clothing companies that their suppliers adhere to international labor laws at a minimum.

“These international companies want us to strictly implement these compliance features, which we are happy to do, but at the same time they want us to charge less for our making costs,” Sohail said. “A lot of manufacturers are struggling to come out on top.”

Andrew Biraj / Reuters

Workers who survived the Rana Plaza collapse are treated at a hospital in Savar. Aroti Das, left, was rescued from the rubble two days after the building collapsed. Aroti said she earned 4,500 Taka ($56.25) per month. "The workers who stitched the clothes would never dare to ask the boss for better conditions," she added.

Among the costly items that he said companies struggle with are the provision of air conditioning and filtered drinking water, and the hiring of safety officers and medical staff.

Some compliance measures are inexpensive, including regular breaks and limits on the number of workers on a factory floor, but they can lead to missed deadlines in fulfilling orders, Sohail said.

“If you don’t deliver on time, there is a fine and the company’s reputation is at stake,” he said. “The pressure of reaching deadlines inevitably means that some firms will subcontract to non-compliant factories to finish off orders.”

Sohail said his knowledge of health and safety requirements and frequent visits to Rana Plaza led him to the conclusion that factories there were pushed beyond their limits.

“Each floor was overcrowded,” he said. “There were maybe 800 workers on each when there should have been around 600. There were few windows, and the entry and exits points to each floor were on the same side, so it was one way in and the same way out. God knows what would have happened if there was fire.”

Ismail Ferdous / AP

A clothes tag lies in the rubble Saturday of Rana Plaza in Savar, Bangladesh. More than 800 bodies been pulled from the site where the eight-story building collapsed.

Compounding the problem is that Bangladeshi workers don’t tend to ask for better conditions, Sohail and others said.

In a country where income from land usage has significantly declined, working for the booming garment industry is not only a way of making a living but is also considered respectable employment, particularly for women. Many of them come from rural areas where there is little or no opportunity to earn.

Professor Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and a special adviser to the United Nations, observed in his 2005 book “The End of Poverty: How We Can Make it Happen in Our Lifetime” that garment workers were just grateful for the work.

It was a way out of dire poverty and a step up the financial ladder, he said. Despite factory women acknowledging the tough, almost inhumane conditions in which they worked, Sachs noted: “What was most striking and unexpected about these stories was the repeated affirmation that this work was the greatest opportunity that these women could ever have imagined.”

Bangladesh earns nearly $20 billion a year from exports of the garment products, mainly to the United States and Europe, and the industry provides jobs for about 4 million workers.

The country’s clothing factory trade association, whose headquarters was pelted with rocks by angry survivors in the days after last month’s disaster, fears a global backlash against Bangladeshi garments would cause more poverty.

Atiqul Islam, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, told reporters last week: “It's not the time to turn away from us. That will hurt the industry and many of the workers will lose jobs.

The number of those killed in the collapse of a garment factory building in Bangladesh has risen to 622. NBCNews.com's Richard Lui reports.

“It's a crucial time for us. We are doing our best to improve the safety measures in the factories. We expect our buyers to bear with us and help us to overcome the current crisis.”

Moufaq Karul, who runs a garment manufacturing firm and had frequent dealings at Rana Plaza, added: “Garment workers are not bothered whether there is adequate health and safety in a factory. All they are interested in is the income. The majority of them are women, and most of them are sole breadwinners for their families.”

Karul corroborated Sohail’s observations of the ill-fated Rana Plaza, saying there was barely space to walk but that this was not a cause for protest by the workers.

“Workers don’t even think of compliance factors as a right,” Karul said.

NBC News' John Newland contributed to this report.

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