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Survivors Remember Bangladesh Garment Factory Collapse

Shahjahan Selim, a former garment worker and survivor of the Rana Plaza collapse. (Amy Yee for VOA News)
Shahjahan Selim, a former garment worker and survivor of the Rana Plaza collapse. (Amy Yee for VOA News)
Survivors Remember Bangladesh Garment Factory Collapse
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The Rana Plaza building near Bangladesh's capital, Dhaka, collapsed in April 2013, killing 1,100 garment workers. More than 2,500 other people were injured.

Last week, the victims' compensation fund finally reached its $30 million target. The needed amount came from a donor who asked to remain unidentified.

All payments from the Rana Plaza Trust can now be made. Many victims desperately need the money as they continue to recover.

Rehana Akter is one such victim. She was working on the seventh floor of the Rana Plaza when she felt a strange sensation, "like being in an elevator," she said. Then the 24-year-old woman heard a roaring sound. The room went dark.

People started to run and scream. Ms. Akter fell, her leg twisted beneath a heavy column. She was rescued from the ruins almost 12 hours later.

Ms. Akter's leg was crushed. Six days later, doctors removed the leg from above the knee.

An international effort developed to compensate victims

The collapse of the eight-story Rana Plaza was the world's worst clothing factory disaster. The voluntary Rana Plaza Trust fund includes donations from international clothing companies, the Bangladeshi government and others.

The International Labor Organization, or ILO, established the fund last year to compensate survivors and families of those who died.

The compensation committee gave an update in April on the second anniversary of the collapse. At that point, more than $27 million had been raised. About 70 percent of the compensation had been paid to about 2,800 people.

The payments range in size from about $625 and nine months of salary for those without injuries to thousands of dollars for other victims. The top official of the Rana Plaza Claims Administration says some people received more than $31,000.

The advocacy group Clean Clothes Campaign said only half the clothing companies connected to Rana Plaza gave to the fund. Those donors include Mango, Primark, Walmart, C&A and Inditex, owner of Zara. In April, the clothing business Benetton announced a contribution of $1.1 million to the fund. Clean Clothes Campaign had urged Benetton for months to contribute at least $5 million.

Clean Clothes Campaign said last week, "This is a huge victory but it's been too long in the making.” The group said the companies involved make a total profit of more than $20 billion each year. Yet, it said, it took two years and intense public pressure to get them to provide $30 million. Clean Clothes Campaign said the lack of speedy action shows that voluntary social responsibility is not dependable.

“You have to move forward.”

More than two years later, many survivors are still struggling. Money alone is often not enough. For example, some female garment workers say their husbands took their compensation payments and left the marriage. Others still experience mental problems or physical pain that makes it difficult to work.

Rehana Akter received treatment from the Center for the Rehabilitation of the Paralyzed, a hospital in Dhaka near Rana Plaza. Last year, she began walking with a prosthetic leg made at the center. The group also gave her a cow and training as a way to make money.

The prosthesis causes pain to her leg and she uses a stick to help her walk. She has trouble pumping water and carrying things.

She says she has a lot of difficulties, but still has to try to do something. "This is life," she says. "You have to move forward."

Some of the neediest survivors received additional help from organizations including the International Labor Organization and local and international non-profit groups. They supply training for new jobs or provide money to start small businesses.

Thirty-five-year-old Liton Mia was a supervisor on the fourth floor of the Rana Plaza. He was trapped under the ruins for 14 hours. A university student rescued him. Mr. Mia’s leg was fractured and he could not work for seven months. He says he was under "serious stress" about how to support his family.

Mr. Mia received about $1,200 (95,000 taka) in compensation and attended a skills training workshop funded by the German aid agency, GiZ. Last July, he opened a business that provides lights and sound equipment for parties in exchange for a fee.

Liton Mia sits in his small store surrounded by party lights. He hires two workers to hang strings of lights around houses during weddings. He makes from $260 to $650 each month compared to his salary of $140 at the clothing factory.

He says he used to remember the traumatic memory of the collapse. But after being involved in this business, he is always busy and does not have time to think about what happened.

On a quiet street a few miles from Rana Plaza, Shahjahan Selim works in his small shop. The 37-year-old cannot use his hand very well, so sometimes customers get their own change from a plastic box on the counter.

Mr. Selim was a supervisor on the fifth floor of the Rana Plaza. He was uninjured in the collapse. But he went back into the wreckage when he heard calls for help. Over four days, Mr. Selim rescued 37 people and recovered 28 bodies.

On the fourth day, he freed a man by using a saw to cut off an arm trapped under heavy wreckage. Mr. Selim then slipped and fell four floors, more than 12 meters. He seriously injured his back. He was hospitalized and then treated at the Center for the Rehabilitation of the Paralyzed for almost a year.

Today, it is very difficult for Mr. Selim to walk. With training and money from Action Aid and the ILO, Mr. Selim opened the shop where he works seven days a week. As many as 200 customers come each day.

The store helped him to "go ahead," he says. Shahjahan Selim says he does not regret going back into the wreckage of Rana Plaza although it left him permanently disabled. But he says the disaster should never have happened.

"Government should not permit this type of building," he says. "We lost many lives. I want to see a garment industry where workers are safe."

Widespread safety efforts are going on now in Bangladesh. At the same time, survivors of Rana Plaza struggle and carry on with their lives.

I'm Caty Weaver.

Amy Yee reported this story from Dhaka in partnership with the McGraw Center for Business Journalism at the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism. Caty Weaver adapted it for VOA Learning English. Mario Ritter was the editor.


Words in This Story

garment – n. clothing, something that is worn

compensation n. payment, or something else, that is given to make up for damage, suffering or death

column n. a tall support made of steel, stone etc. that is used to help hold up a building

range v. to include everything between set limits

advocacy n. speaking or acting in support of a cause or of a person or group

prosthetic adj. a manufactured device that replaces a part of the body

Should the clothing companies that use Rana Plaza have been forced to provide support for victims? Should the government have done more? What do you think? Post your answers in the comments section.