Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

The cheap clothing of hope

Woman badly injured in Bangladesh factory fire would do it all again to give her daughter a shot at success

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Nazma Akhter, left, and her daughter, Riza, 10, outside their home in a slum in Ashulia, a suburb of Dhaka, Bangladesh. Nazma survived the November 2012 fire in Tazreen Fashions Factory that killed 112 of her co-workers.

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Nazma Akhter, left, and her daughter, Riza, 10, outside their home in a slum in Ashulia, a suburb of Dhaka, Bangladesh. Nazma survived the November 2012 fire in Tazreen Fashions Factory that killed 112 of her co-workers.

DHAKA, Bangladesh -- To give her daughter the opportunity neither she nor her mother had, Nazma Akhter made the only choices possible for a poor, illiterate woman in Bangladesh.

She escaped her tiny village, bolting the door behind her so her mother couldn't chase her down. She lived in a shed the size of a parking space in Dhaka, the capital. She worked as much as 12 hours a day making jeans, T-shirts and dresses, earning no more than $98 a month.

The income was just about enough to bring her family to Dhaka and put her daughter, Riza, in school. Then came the fire at Tazreen Fashions Ltd., the factory where Akhter was sewing jeans on the fourth floor on Nov. 24, 2012.

It killed 112 of her co-workers and was the worst fire in the history of Bangladesh's garment trade, although not as many died as the 1,129 who perished a year ago when a factory they were working in collapsed because of shoddy, illegal construction. But for Akhter, who guesses she is in her early 30s, the consequences were lasting.

She limps to demonstrate how her leg was stuck in a pile of bodies. She unravels her sari to show the scar on her back, from hours of surgery after she jumped out the building, falling two stories, to escape the fire. She still can't work.

She says she'd do it all again if it meant Riza, now 10 and an excellent student, could get a good education and a chance at an office job. Nothing could be further from the life lived by Akhter's mother, who spends her days pulling stalks of rice in the paddy fields.

"God, she worked so hard," said Akhter, whispering in the dark shed as her three children slept in the afternoon heat. "My mother couldn't stand straight anymore. I couldn't live like that. I couldn't make my daughter live like that."

The lasting irony of Bangladesh's $20-billion garment industry, where substandard practices have resulted in the deaths of at least 2,000 people since 2005, is it is the only way for women and girls to claw their way out of poverty and illiteracy. For some 3.5 million in the country, mostly women, the 10-hour shifts spent hunched over a sewing machine offer a once-in-a-generation prospect to better their lives.

They are all making the same bargain: players in a global game of chance, balancing the stability of money for food, school and medicine with the real possibility of premature death or injury.

By 2011, about 12 per cent of women in the country between 15 and 30 years of age worked in the garment industry. Pay was 13 per cent more than in other industries, and factories favoured women because they were seen as better at sewing -- and more compliant.

Perhaps most important, the researchers found, 27 per cent more young girls were going to school than before the garment industry existed in Bangladesh, and this increase was almost entirely focused in the schools near garment factories.

Even at her age, Riza, a poetry-obsessed math whiz, understands her mother's factory job was an essential, if eventually damaging, step in her family's quest for both security and prosperity. Standing in the front yard of her school, she imagines a life beyond what her mother achieved.

"Tell me something," she asked. "Do offices catch fire like factories do? Because I want to work in an office someday."

In the last three decades, since Akhter was a child, Bangladesh's garment industry has grown to $20 billion a year in revenue from $12 million, mostly on the back of cheap workers.

For this country half the size of Manitoba -- dismissed as a "basket case" by Henry Kissinger after its violent birth in 1971, regularly buffeted by violent cyclones and home to three military coups and dozens of violent uprisings since independence -- garment-making was a godsend.

On a steaming hot day, the smell of garbage thick in the air and flies buzzing around her sleeping children, Akhter relives the day she almost died.

She waves with her hands as she describes the smoke filling the air on the fourth floor of the factory on that November day in 2012. And then suddenly, she starts howling, the memories still sharp.

When money is mentioned, the normally chatty Akhter goes quiet. For months after the blaze, the family lived on a patchwork of handouts from the government and local charities, totalling about $2,200.

Now, she said, she and her invalid husband borrow money from neighbours, convinced they can pay back the debt after the factory owner is convicted and more compensation is paid out. She bases this theory mostly on rumours from other survivors of the fire. Riza's school has offered a one-year reprieve from fees while her mother recovers.

Akhter has great hopes for Riza.

"How hard-working she is," said her school principal, Rahima Begum, standing in the courtyard of the primary school while Riza's class chanted multiplication tables in Bengali. "Look at her, she's leading the class. She can multiply all the way to 50 already."

More than her math, Begum loves Riza's poetry. The day before, Riza had been scheduled to read her poems out on stage at a competition in central Dhaka. She never made it: A local protest about working conditions at garment factories blocked the roads.

And so, four days later, 80 of her classmates have gathered to hear her read her poetry.

Riza is wearing a white-and-blue-checked school uniform. Her hair is washed and oiled, and is braided into two tight loops held together by a red ribbon. Her brother has polished her shoes and she has rearranged her socks so the holes in them now face away from the audience.

Since she and her father joined her mother in the city, Riza has been back to the village her mother escaped just once. And yet, her poem reveals, she feels nostalgia for a life where her mother and her family are intact and unhurt -- and live in a village.

 

In our small village, the houses are small, Everyone lives together, and no one is an outsider.

"All the children in our neighborhood are like brothers and sisters. We play together and go to school together

"We never fight and are never jealous; we respect our parents and elders always

"Our small village is like our mother. She keeps us alive with her light and air.

"Her fields and lakes are full of paddies and water, they shine and twinkle in the moon light

"Mango trees, jamun trees and bamboo trees, they live together like family.

"The golden sun rises in the east in the morning, and the birds sing, the wind blows and flowers bloom."

 

-- Washington Post-Bloomberg

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 26, 2014 D5

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