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Bangladesh factory collapse: Why women endure danger to make clothes for the West

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Qashem Mollah, whose 19-year-old daughter Parveen Akter is missing in the rubble of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh.

Almost one month after a garment factory collapsed in Bangladesh, killing at least 1,127, relatives still gather daily at the site amid the rubble holding pictures of their missing loved ones. Almost all the pictures are of women.

“We have looked for her body everywhere and asked everyone,” said Qashem Mollah, whose 19-year-old daughter Parveen Akter had worked at the doomed Rana Plaza for three years. “The police don’t tell us anything and just dismiss us.”

Identifying bodies that are found in the rubble is now almost impossible, as daytime temperatures reach more than 86F and hopes diminish of a repeat of miracles such as the mother who survived 16 days under the wreckage.

“The faces had gone, there was nothing left of them, it was horrible,” said Mollah.“My daughter has gone, she was everything to us. We have lost everything.”

As the eldest child, Parveen provided for her family of nine living 150 miles away in the rural district of Pabna.

Mollah is too ill to work, and the family - which also included her grandparents - relied on Parveen to survive. With overtime, Parveen was able to earn up to $102 a month to feed them all.

Her story has echoes throughout the Bangladesh garment industry, where salaries often support large extended families.

Of the four million people working in clothing factories, 85 per cent are women, according to the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association.

“I wish I had a garments job instead of laboring in the fields, look at my hands,” said Alisha Begum, who had come to the scene of the disaster to look for the body of her younger sister, Rehana. Her mother held a piece of paper with her daughter’s details.

“I can’t read or write which why I have to work out in the sun. Without basic reading, you can’t get a job in this type of factory.”

Her farm income was small, meaning her dead sister not only supported the whole family but also Alisha’s husband. “Hundreds of people have come from our district for these jobs,” she added.

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The mother and sister of missing 19-year-old worker Parveen Akter.

The ready-made garments (RMG) industry accounts for more than 75 per cent of Bangladesh’s export income and is the largest employer of women, according to the American Journal of Sociological Research.

The majority of women come from villages where employment is scarce and families struggle to survive. Those who stay in rural areas must usually choose between working as farm hands or domestic servants, and so RMG jobs not only offer good wages but can elevate women’s social status.

The United Nations Research Institute for Social Development concluded that, for many women, RMG work was “for all its many problems, was a better way to make money than what one had done in the past.”

Kolpana Akter, from the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity said: “These jobs have also helped in the reduction of forced marriages among young teenagers. The sector is not solely responsible for it, but it has a contribution.”

Akter has constantly campaigned for the safety of these workers and was recently instrumental in getting 31 western retailers, including Zara and H&M to sign a health and safety accord for the protection of garment workers – although Gap and Wal-Mart are among the hold-outs.

She said such work may increase women’s social respectability but their treatment by factory owners or supervisors leaves a dent in their dignity because they are powerless to do complain about conditions for fear of losing their job.

“These women regularly tell me that the retailers have excessive production targets and if the workers cannot meet them then they get verbally and physically abused, like slapping,” Akter said

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Shampa Sonya, 19, who had been working in the doomed factory for 5 years. She lost her husband in the April 24 collapse, and is three months pregnant with no income.

Shampa Sonya, 19, had been working at Rana Plaza for 5 years. A regular paycheck was the only inspiration for her to work in conditions she described as inhumane. Ambitious production targets promised by the factory owners meant that she would start at 8am and finish at 10pm with just an hour’s break in between for lunch. “They wouldn’t even let you go to the toilet unless you had a toilet card, which you had to get from your supervisor, you would get into trouble if you went without one and they would cut your overtime pay if you spent more than five minutes.”

Poor conditions are expected to be tolerated, Sonya said. “The fans were useless and too far away and if we opened the windows all our threads and fabric would fly away, we just dealt with it and got used to it.”

She added: “When the foreign buyers would visit us, there was a totally different atmosphere: they treated us like family, made less people come in to work and targets were much less that day.”

Ferdous Perves Bivon, director of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, said it had been lobbying the government since 2003 to improve workplaces.

“If they had listened then all these accidents would not have happened,” Bivon said.

Both Sonya and her husband worked on the same floor of Rana Plaza, stitching jeans. On the day of the collapse, her husband told her to stay at home while he checked on the safety of the building. He never came back.

Now three months pregnant with no work, her husband’s family have taken the compensation money and thrown her out and her mother cannot afford to keep her. 


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