Another accident occurred in a Bangladeshi factory on Tuesday when a fire broke out in a garment workshop in Ghazipur on the outskirts of Dhaka. So far the death toll is nine, although casualties are expected to rise along with the number of injured, which currently stands at 50.
This is not the first such accident to strike a factory making garments, which constitutes almost 75 percent of Bangladesh’s exports.
This April a major accident occurred in a three-story garment factory known as Rana Plaza that collapsed killed more than 1,100 people. Meanwhile, the BBC reports that 2,500 more people were injured in yet another disaster in the Ashulia district on the outskirts of the capital, in the heart of the district where most of the clothing industry is based. And last November another 112 workers died in a fire at another garment factory.
After the accident in April, there was widespread public outcry around the country and beyond about the safety standards and working conditions in Bangladesh’s factories. The government not only fixed a minimum wage for workers but also took steps in collaboration with the industry body to improve not only security for its workers, but also to put in place a mechanism to facilitate regular inspection of the merchandise industry.
According to one estimate, around 4 million people, mostly women, are employed in this sector, making it the biggest employer in the country. Yet, wages and working conditions are not on par with international standards.
During my recent trip to Bangladesh I spoke with Mausam Ritika Begum, a 28-year-old woman who had a harrowing experience and very narrowly escaped the Rana Plaza factory accident this April, which is widely considered the biggest factory accident in the nation’s history. After the collapse, Begum remained confined amid the debris for three days. By the time she was rescued it was too late. She managed to escape, but not without losing her right hand, leaving her permanently debilitated and out of a job, which previously gave her dignity and a means of supporting herself.
Speaking with The Diplomat, Begum describes her days buried in debris, the working conditions for the nation’s factory workers, and her struggles as a mother and wife in her new circumstances.
Can you please describe what actually happened when the accident happened? How did you survive after being buried in debris for three days?
That day I went to the office as usual. I and some of my fellow workers were asked to come later in the afternoon for work. When I returned to the factory after lunch some journalists warned me not to go inside the building as cracks were beginning to appear in its walls.
But the factory supervisor asked us to go inside and work. We entered the factory and started our work. I completed two garments. The helpers gave us some more thread. Then suddenly the manager asked us to run away. The building had started collapsing. When I was running suddenly I felt something fall on my head. I fell straight down. I tried pulling myself out, but I was deep inside.
My whole body, except my head, was under the collapsed roof. There was little space to move. I could hardly breathe. As I tried moving my right hand I saw something falling on my hand and after that I could not pull my hand back. It became immobile.
On the fourth day someone from outside made a hole in the wall and asked us whether we were alive or not. The moment I saw someone I asked for water. We were in the debris for three days. We had to drink urine for survival. Others who were stuck in the debris did the same thing.
Three or four people were rescued with minor injuries, but they could not easily get me out. The rescuers told me that my hands will have to be chopped off before they could save me. My right hand was trapped under a wall and they tried very hard to take it out. But finally they had to chop it off. I was writhing in pain and by the time they took me to a stretcher I had fainted. I saw my hand being cut off with a saw.
What kind of help did you receive after that?
I remained in the hospital for two months. The factory gave me around $6,000 and the prime minister donated around $18,000. This is the monetary support I received. But I have been out of job for the last six months and I don't know what kind of job I can do without my right hand.
What are working conditions like inside Bangladesh’s factories?
Everyone who seeks employment in a factory is in dire need of money. We don't care about working conditions. But generally, in the factory where I was working lots of people share a small space where they huddle together and work more than 10 hours at a stretch. Most of them earn less than $60 per month. This is not enough to support a family, but something is better than nothing.
Mostly women work in the factories. As they need money to support their families, they agree to work in any conditions. If women stop working in these factories, the garment industry will collapse. Yet, neither the government nor the factory owners give any importance to us. They treat us like a herd.
I hope that after the Rana Plaza incident the general situation in the nation’s factories improves.
How do you plan to cope in the future?
My life used to be good, but since I lost my hand it has been miserable. I feel sad when I compare my present life with before. Right now I am not in a position to get a job. I cannot work from home either. My husband helps me finish housework. I have an eight-year-old son who has gone to his grandmother's place as I cannot take care of his schooling. An artificial limb is not a substitute for a real hand.