1 year after horrific garment factory collapse, Bangladeshi workers skeptical of promises

The Associated Press

Bangladeshi relatives of victims of last year’s Rana Plaza building collapse stand in front of a monument erected in memory of the victims, during a gathering on the eve of the tragedy in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh, Wednesday, April 23, 2014. More than 1,100 people were killed when the illegally constructed, 8-storey building collapsed on April 24, 2013, in a heap along with thousands of workers in the five garment factories in the building. Placard reads “Farzana, Rana Plaza missing.” (AP Photo/A.M. Ahad)

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Investigators say a host of factors contributed to its collapse: It was overloaded with machines and generators, constructed on swampy land, and the owner added floors in violation of the original building plan.

The final death toll was 1,135 people, with thousands more rescued from the wreckage. Rescuers found Reshma Begum 17 days after the collapse, and authorities say her survival was miraculous.

When the building began crumble around her, Begum said she raced down a stairwell into the basement, where she became trapped near a wide pocket that allowed her to survive.

She found some dried food and bottles of water that saved her life.

Although her story has a happy ending — she now works in an international hotel in Dhaka's upscale Gulshan area — Begum is still haunted by the disaster.

"I can't tolerate darkness in my room at night. The light is switched on always," Begum said in an interview from her sister's home in Savar. "If the light is turned off, I start panicking. It feels like ... What I can say? Like I am still there (at the Rana Plaza)."

Begum, who says she is either 18 or 19 years old, is waiting for the day that the factory owners face justice.

"So many people have died because of them," she said. "I want to see them executed."

Although some of the Rana Plaza workers have left the garment industry for good, others have returned to a job that many see as a path out of poverty. Every year, at least 300,000 rural residents — and perhaps as many as 500,000 — migrate to the Dhaka area, already one of the most crowded cities on the planet.

Poverty remains the norm across most of rural Bangladesh, where less than 60 percent of adults are literate. To them, the steady wage of a garment factory can lift their living standards significantly.

On the eve of Thursday's anniversary of the collapse, a spokesman for Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina tried to head off criticism of the government response and said the country must protect the lucrative garment industry.

"Bangladesh is working hard to improve conditions," the spokesman, Mahbubul Hoque Shakil said. "All must keep in mind that if this important sector faces any setback from any negative propaganda, millions of families of the workers will be the main victims."

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