Farida did not know if her son was alive or dead. Tears streaming down her face, Farida showed person after person his photograph. No one had any information. Doctors, firefighters, policemen—no one had any evidence that he had made it out alive.
Her son, a garment worker in the now-infamous Rana Plaza, could be one of the more than 600 people killed when the nine-story building collapsed, enveloping more than 3,000 people in concrete and steel. I met her as part of a small assessment team with the humanitarian organization Concern Worldwide amid the search-and-rescue mission the day after the factory collapsed.
The scene was sheer chaos.
More than 1,000 rescue workers, from members of the armed forces and firefighters to everyday people, tirelessly tore through the building’s remains in search of survivors. Emergency medical clinics were overflowing with people in need of immediate care, while relatives of garment workers, like Farida, frantically searched for their loved ones. The fear that their family members would not be among the lucky ones pulled from the rubble grew palpably greater by the minute.
More than a week has passed since Rana Plaza collapsed. With it, the hope that any remaining garment workers will be uncovered alive also dies. The rescue mission continues, and the injured need treatment. But that just scratches at the surface of what is needed for families — and Bangladesh as a country — to recover from this heart-wrenching tragedy.
For one, most of the workers who died or were injured were their families’ sole breadwinners. Those families will now have to figure out how to scrape by without those wages. I firmly believe that it is the responsibility of the government, factory owners, and the owner of the building to ensure that the survivors and their families — most of whom are among the poorest in Bangladesh —are not driven deeper into poverty by a catastrophe that was not of their making.
The anguish of Rana Plaza began long before its walls buckled.
Bangladesh’s garment-makers, most of whom are women, work around the clock just to earn $37 a month — the lowest wages paid by any garment-producing country in the world. Lowering costs inevitably leads to factories cutting corners on building regulations, and skimping on the health and safety issues of the workers. Workers are scolded or fired if they speak, and have no healthcare, sick leave or benefits of any kind. They do not have the right to form a trade union.
The fact that two women gave birth in the rubble of Rana Plaza is a testament to the working conditions these women endure every day to make the clothes that are sold on department store racks a world away.
Boycotting clothes made in Bangladesh is not the answer, but the end consumer needs to demand more from the stores they shop in. Clothing companies that rely on cheap labor to keep profit margins high also rely on the buyer to ignore the inhumane conditions their products are made in.
It’s time for that to stop.