After hours of digging in the ruins of Rana Plaza, rescuers heard a voice: Pakhi Begum, 25, her legs pinned under a mountain of concrete.
Escape seemed near that afternoon of April 24, hours after the eight-story building where she worked outside Bangladesh’s capital collapsed, especially when so many more had died -- more than 600 at last count. But before she could be rescued, Pakhi, whose name means little bird, faced a life-altering decision: She could be freed only if rescuers hacked off her legs.
She begged for hours. The rescue team said no. The army, which was leading search operations, was brought in. Then a machete was brandished.
Begum’s trajectory mirrors that of Bangladesh’s $18 billion garment industry, one whose messy, exuberant growth has provided opportunities for millions of poor, illiterate women while placing their lives at risk. Touted as a symbol of empowerment by Sheikh Hasina, the country’s female prime minister, it is the only road out of grinding poverty for many.
And yet, the industry fattens profit margins at western retailers while women are forced to work in unsafe jobs that rob them of their health and dignity.
“If you look at industrial history across the world, for better or worse, this is what early industrial revolution looks like,” said Pietra Rivoli, a professor at Georgetown University in Washington and author of “The Travels of a T-Shirt in The Global Economy.” Bangladesh is “still a desperately poor country, and we shouldn’t minimize what a steady job with a steady paycheck means to a poor woman.”
The garment industry has been a rare glimmer of growth in a country once described by former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger as a “basket case.” Bangladesh has seen three major coups and two dozen smaller rebellions since gaining independence from Pakistan in 1971, and ranks 130 out of 139 countries for its roads, power and ports, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report.
By 2005, global trade agreements limiting the number of garments individual countries could export to the European Union and the U.S. started to expire. The World Bank and the International Monetary Fund predicted Bangladesh’s exports of garments would wilt under an onslaught of cheap Chinese goods.
Instead, Bangladesh’s exports tripled between 2005 and 2010, and are expected to triple again by 2020 to almost $50 billion a year, McKinsey and Co. estimates. The secret has been low wages. Average monthly pay in 2009 for workers in Dhaka was $47, versus $235 in Shenzhen and $100 in Hanoi, according to the Japan External Trade Organization.
“They are undercutting each other over two to three billion dollars of new business each year,” said Kasra Ferdows, a professor of operations management at Georgetown University who has advised retailers like Zara. “It creates a dog-eat-dog business where there are a lot people on the margins who will cut corners.”
For Pakhi Begum, the boom in garment exports couldn’t have come at a better time. In 2008, she and her husband, Jahangir Fakir, ran out of money. Living in a rural district called Khulna, Fakir had struggled to make a living. A business selling bananas had failed. So had one selling shrimps. Dhaka offered escape.
Both got jobs in the garment industry, at a company called Hallmark Group. Pay was low, says Fakir, and the hours stretched into the night. Four years later, Hallmark was investigated for financial fraud that included $340 million in loans given by a local bank, and it was shut down.
In search of a new job, Pakhi ended up at a company called Ether Textiles. At least six days a week, on the fifth floor of a building called Rana Plaza, where Ether Textiles rented a floor, she would hunch over a sewing machine for as long as 14 hours a day, making jeans and shorts. Executives from Ether Textiles weren’t available to comment on working conditions.
Unbeknownst to her, the building was illegal, its owner a gun-toting local politician who had obtained permits from the mayor, instead of local building authorities, to construct the glass-fronted factory complex on a swamp.
Pakhi earned more than her husband, sometimes bringing home as much as $115 a month, including overtime, during the peak delivery period leading up to the summer.
For millions across Bangladesh, the garment industry was an equally mixed blessing. By 2011, about 12 percent of women in the country between 15 and 30 years of age worked in the industry, according to a study by Yale University. Pay was 13 percent more than in other industries, and factories favored women because they were seen as better at sewing -- and more compliant.
Perhaps most important, the Yale Researchers found, the dream of getting better jobs -- secretarial or even managerial - - within the garment industry meant that 27 percent more girls were going to school.
Yet working conditions did not improve and wages remained flat from 2000 to 2010, according to a British non-profit called War on Want. Some 70 percent of the 988 workers surveyed had been verbally abused by their bosses, and over 40 percent had been beaten.
With mostly female employees overseen by male managers, sexual harassment was commonplace: a third said they had been touched inappropriately. Punishments for not meeting quotas included being forced to stand on tables for hours. A third said they were threatened by further humiliations such as being forced to undress in front of co-workers, the study found.
More than half of the women interviewed were not allowed to take their legally guaranteed maternity leave of 100 days. The majority worked until the last weeks of pregnancy, jeopardizing the health of their babies, and were often fired when they left to give birth.
One labor leader, Aminul Islam, was kidnapped and tortured in April, 2012, a case that prompted U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to pressure the Bangladeshi government to investigate his death. Some 700 workers had already died since 2005 in fires and other industrial mishaps, even before Rana Plaza collapsed, according to the International Labor Organization.
Any continued improvement in working conditions will depend on companies working with the Bangladeshi government, said Ferdows, the Georgetown professor. A March decision by Walt Disney Co. (DIS) to stop production in Bangladesh was “wrong-headed,” he said.
“Don’t exclude countries,” he said. “If people stop going to Bangladesh, they can go to a similar factory in Myanmar or Thailand. How is that going to help?”
The head of Disney’s consumer products division, in a statement May 2, said there’s no easy answer.
“These are complicated global issues and there is no ‘one size fits all’ solution,” said Bob Chapek, president of the division. “Disney is a publicly held company accountable to its shareholders and after much thought and discussion we felt this was the most responsible way to manage the challenges associated with our supply chain.”
For Pakhi Begum, overtime wages were always an issue. Sometimes she was paid in full, sometimes not at all, her husband said while waiting for word of his wife’s condition outside the hospital where she is being treated. Their jobs were back-breakingly difficult, he said, forcing both to spend as many as 15 hours a day away from their five-year-old daughter, Aduri.
Managers were rough. Water from the taps was filthy, and rare bathroom breaks meant a quick trip to dirty, overflowing toilets. Elevators were blocked off for managers and international visitors, forcing workers to use a single, unsafe stairwell, the couple and a co-worker, Rayhan Kabir, said.
Then on April 23, Rana Plaza developed cracks. The next day Fakir begged his wife not to go to work. She agreed, and after he left for work at another garment factory, Pakhi called in and asked for the day off. Her manager told her a month’s salary would be withheld if she didn’t show up, she said, lapsing in and out of consciousness in her hospital bed. Losing a month’s pay was too big a risk. Though there was a strike that day and public transport was difficult, Pakhi got to work on time.
Almost 400 people worked on her floor, all employees of Ether Textiles, whose website has been pulled down. Its owner has been arrested and its customers remain unknown. When Pakhi again begged her manager for the day off, she said, his answer was a series of unprintable insults.
Hours later, Pakhi was begging for her life. She remembers that two of the rescuers returned with a large, broad knife. They had spent precious time scrabbling in the debris with their bare hands, unable to free her legs. They started chopping.
All around her were screams of pain. She says she doesn’t remember much of what came afterwards, waking up in a hospital, her husband’s cell phone number scrawled on the wall, her legs gone. She was one of the earliest survivors pulled alive from the building, a number that eventually topped 1,500.
Before rescue operations were ended, the death toll would climb to 617, and earthmovers would be called in to scrape through the twisted metal and concrete for bodies.
On Friday, as the Bangladeshi government agreed to International Labor Organization proposals that include worker protection and the right to unions, her husband sat across from the hospital, contemplating what’s next.
“My life in my small village was better than this,” he said. “Here, there’s too much pain for me to bear.”
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