One week after our first trip to Savar, we return for another visit, organized this time by activist and artist Taslima Akhter. She has set up appointments for us with four garment workers who survived the Rana Plaza collapse and know her well. Taslima has also secured a translator for us, her friend Zaeed Aziz, a filmmaker who also knows the people we are about to meet.
Getting to know the people who make our clothes feels like a vital part of our trip here. Many of them have been interviewed over and over by journalists and researchers—to the point where many feel exploited for the benefit of “news,” not support—but part of our mission is to connect with these garment workers as human beings, not statistics and not exotic abstractions.
We meet Mili Khatun, who takes us to the one room apartment she shares with friends. She sits on the bed, and gives us chairs facing her. Zaeed says we are allowed to ask her anything; she can decide to answer–or not. Mili is shy with us, and often looks away, but as soon as she starts speaking with Zaeed, her face and hands become animated, her voice, firm, her gaze, steady. We don’t know Bangla, but by watching Zaeed’s gentle, respectful body language, listening to the soothing tones in his voice and observing Mili’s reactions, it is obvious that Zaeed is a brilliant, empathetic interviewer, interpreting our questions with sensitivity, giving us uncensored answers. We are so lucky to be working with him.
We sit with Mili for a couple of hours. Here are a few details from the interview.
Mili, who is now 23, grew up in a village in Northeast Bangladesh. As a teenager, she met Matiur Rahman, a boy from another village, and fell in love. They got married two months later, angering her parents, who did not accept the marriage. Forced to leave her village, Mili and Matiur tried unsuccessfully to make ends meet until they moved to Savar to join the garment industry. They both took jobs on the 4th floor of Rana Plaza, at the Phantom Apparel factory. Matiur became a cutting master. Mili, who was 16, got her first job as a sewing helper and quickly rose to the position of sewing operator. On their combined income, they could finally make a living.
When Mili and her husband began working in Rana Plaza, it was a 5-story building, but Rana, the owner, bribed Dhaka’s engineering department to give him permission to build another 4 stories and place 2 16-ton generators on the roof.
April 22, 2013, two days before the collapse, the factory operators noticed a crack in the building. They asked their employees to stop working and closed the factory. The next day, they insisted that the workers return. The evening of April 23rd, Matiur went to the factory and prepared cloth for sewing until 3 a.m. He returned home to Mili, slept a bit, then went back to work. Mili woke up with an upset stomach. She couldn’t eat. The night before, Matiur had told her about the crack in the building. He had a hunch that the building might collapse.
Mili’s eyes, encircled with shadows of tiredness, remain dry as she recounts the events of April 24th, 2013.
At 8 a.m. she went to her workplace on the 4th floor of Rana Plaza. Her husband was already there, working nearby. Neither had eaten breakfast. He said he would arrange snacks with the sweeper. Then the electricity went out. The 16 ton generators began to hum. They were almost immediately silenced by a deafening blast. The area where Matiur had been working was now swirling dust. Other workers were running around her, heading toward the staircase. Mili was confused. She stayed beside her machine and closed her eyes. When she opened them, she saw light through the dust emitted from a window that her supervisor had just broken. He said it was the only way to escape. She fell on her knees, grabbed his legs and said: “please find my husband.” He advised her to leave the factory first.
Her whole body bruised and her head injured, Mili went back to the house in search of Matiur, sure that he had gone home to find her. But he wasn’t there.
She took his ID card with his photo on it back to Rana Plaza and spoke to a journalist from a big daily newspaper. Then she fell unconscious.
Her relatives came to Dhaka and continued the search for her husband in hospitals, police stations, the rubble of Rana Plaza, the local schoolyard where most of the dead bodies were taken. On the 13th day, a body was found wearing jeans. In his pocket was a moneybag, on which was written: OK. Mili claimed that the body was her husband. He had that kind of moneybag. But another woman claimed that the corpse was her brother. The police gave the body to the sister.
The search continued. No bodies were found that matched her husband’s DNA. Government and NGO officials told her, “It might have happened that your husband escaped and is hiding somewhere. We have to ensure that he’s dead.” She and her relatives persisted until they finally got papers from the police station certifying that Matiur was missing.
The monetary compensation for Rana Plaza survivors and families of the dead has been a huge confusing conflict. According to Mili, everyone expected to get the same amount but the government gave some people more than others, even within families, and treated everyone like beggars.
Zaeed adds that there have been different agencies involved and disbursement has not been coordinated.
Mili speaks more quickly. She is visibly agitated. “Compensation is a problematic word,” she says. “No compensation is enough for one who is dead.” No one can give back her husband, bring solace, restore her peace of mind.
And she is not optimistic that those who committed the crime will be punished. Rana will remain behind bars for a few years then come out. This is what the system is.
Even after Rana Plaza, the garment sector has not changed a lot. There’s still torture, irregularities. An accident like Rana Plaza should have changed everything. Mili insists that those from abroad should exert pressure to improve conditions and ensure the punishment of perpetrators. And consumers from abroad should pay more for their clothes.
“We have to work hard, toil hard. Labor here is very cheap. With hard toil we can hardly get money to subsist. The garments are cheap. Buyers sell at half price. If prices increase, workers’ lives can be eased a bit. Better prices equal better wages.”
Taslima Ahkter has been working with Mili and others from Rana Plaza, giving essential advice to improve their own lives. She always stands beside them and collaborates with their efforts.
Taslima has also helped Mili find a new job, as a senior sewing operator in the small garment factory, Oparajeyo (undefeated), a concept of Kazi Monir Hossain Rintu.
For the most part, the environment in garment factories is still not friendly to workers. If they get a drink of water or go to the toilet, officials rebuke them, saying “It hampers production.” They work under a tight, busy schedule, can rarely take time for lunch or meet a visitor.
But Oparajeyo is different. The owner is nice and most of the workers are Rana Plaza survivors. Mili can a rest whenever she feels the need; if she’s sick she can go home. She can even borrow money from the owner. If she works regularly she receives 8000 taka per month (approximately $100 US dollars). If she works overtime she gets more.
There was no union at Phantom Apparel when Mili worked there. Now, at a factory with only 15 workers, they’re talking about joining a union, and she’s been in contact with Taslima Akter about becoming a member of her organization, Bangladesh Garment Workers Solidarity.
We talk with 3 more Rana Plaza survivors: Asma, who was trapped in the rubble for 4 days before she was freed, Siraj Mian, who lost his wife Selina in the collapse, and Beauty, who was trapped for 3 days before she was rescued. All sustained long-term psychological pain, if not physical pain. We plan to tell their stories in more depth down the road.
We meet with each person in their home, which means, for each one, one room located in some kind of communal housing arrangement, each with a shared toilet, a shared water source outside their room, and a shared fire source, like some kind of outdoor communal fire pit. No one has a fridge but all have a bed, where, for the most part, we sit when we talk. Each person, too, has some kind of metal cabinet where food is kept and some kind of shelving unit where a few dishes, pots and glasses are stored.
These homes, on average, cost between 800 to 1600 taka per month, an average of $10 to $20 US dollars. Their salaries vary somewhat depending on the work they do, but on average, they make about $68 US dollars a month. This must cover rent, food, clothes and money that needs to be sent to help parents and sometimes children who are often living in their home village. $100 US dollars a month is considered minimum wage in Bangladesh.
Their lives are not easy. After the Rana Plaza collapse, Mili Khatun’s parents asked her to go back to her village. She didn’t go. She wanted to be independent, stay in Savar and work in a factory, despite the difficulties. But she was still trying to get over the trauma of Rana Plaza so she decided to work at Oparajeyo, a factory with one story and a tin roof.The factory’s owner is not getting enough work but he is trying his best.
If the factory flourishes she will continue to work there and stay in Savar. She says: “when someone earns and lives on it, it has a pleasure of its own.” She is living with friends but she is alone and the job is not secure. They don’t get work on a regular basis. In spite of this she is striving. Striving and fighting give her energy.
In reference to our presence today and our project, Mili says: “it is better to let people know more.” We are striving to let people know.