Taslima Akhter

April 25, 2013. Two victims amid the rubble of a garment factory building collapse in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Portraits of Pain

It’s not an easy picture to look at. A man clings to the arched body of a woman, her back bent as if gasping for air.

He seems asleep amid the debris, except that his mouth is packed with dirt, and a tear of blood runs down the side of his nose. The image, shot by Bangladeshi photographer Taslima Akhter, captures in one poignant frame the human cost of the April 24 collapse of the Rana Plaza garment-factory complex in the Dhaka sub­district of Savar. At least 1,129 workers died in what is probably the worst apparel-industry accident ever. As the photo of the pair (above) went viral, people worldwide messaged Akhter: Who were they? How were they related? Where did they come from? What were their lives like?

The collapse of Rana Plaza, a structurally deficient eight-story building, was a local disaster with global implications. Bangladesh is the world’s second biggest manufacturer of ready-made garments (RMG) after China. The industry is responsible for nearly 80% of the country’s exports, earning $19 billion annually, or about 13% of its GDP. Some 4 million Bangladeshis — mostly under­educated villagers — toil anonymously in the country’s RMG trade, making T-shirts and jeans for top international brands like Mango, H&M and Primark. Akhter’s picture put an intimate face on what is, in Bangladesh, a crucial but poorly regulated and often dangerous industry. In early June, six weeks after Rana Plaza fell, Akhter and I teamed up to trace the back­stories of the Rana Plaza survivors and victims to try to learn how they lived, and died. Perhaps, along the way, we would discover the identities of the man and woman whom the world witnessed in their final embrace.

Bangladesh’s RMG workers follow a common developing-world pattern: leave the hardscrabble familiarity of the village for the harsh uncertainty of the city in the hope that higher urban wages translate into a better life for their families and for later generations. What sets Bangladeshi garment workers apart is that they perish on the job with depressing frequency. In 2005, the Spectrum Garments building in Baipail, a town in Dhaka district, collapsed, killing over 60 workers. The following year, at least another 60 died in a fire at KTS Textile Mill in Chittagong, another RMG hub. Last November 112 were killed in a fire at the Tazreen Fashion factory outside Dhaka. Since then, says the Bangladesh chapter of the Washington, D.C.–based NGO Solidarity Center, at least 46 more garment-factory fires have occurred. And then there’s the most serious incident: Rana Plaza. While straightforward accidents do, of course, occur, other factors contribute to an unsafe industry: bad construction, proprietors cutting corners in a cutthroat business, inspectors looking the other way, workers discouraged from organizing, corruption. “This is not a wake-up call,” says Sara Hossain, a human-rights lawyer in Dhaka who has filed several cases to the Supreme Court calling for investigations into the disasters. “This is like somebody sleeping in after the alarm has been ringing and ringing and ringing.”

Now the world is, if not awake, certainly stirring. The outcry over Rana Plaza led 70 mostly European brands — including Mango, H&M, Primark, Inditex (which owns Zara), Tesco and Carrefour — to sign an accord requiring their Bangladeshi suppliers to be regularly inspected and to stop doing business with those not complying. Primark has registered over 3,300 garment workers in Rana Plaza and pledged to give a one­time payment equivalent to three months’ wages to each. On June 27, U.S. President Barack Obama announced that he was suspending the duty-free status of Bangladesh’s imports for “not taking steps to afford internationally recognized worker rights to workers in that country.” (Garments are not affected, however, as they do not get tariff breaks.) A group of U.S. retailers, including Gap, Sears, Target and Walmart, announced its own $42 million safety plan on July 10. It will require all the retailers’ factories to be inspected in the first year and include common safety standards and loans for factory safety improvements.

Even the Bangladeshi government has begun to act. The authorities have arrested the Rana Plaza building and factory owners, though none has yet been charged or tried. The government has also suspended inspectors who were lax, and shut down several plants with inadequate safety. The Cabinet has green-lighted an amendment to the labor law to allow workers to join unions without having to inform their employers first, as is now the case, though the initiative still has to clear parliament. A commission has been set up to look into increasing garment workers’ minimum wage, currently about $40 per month. Now that the U.S. is withdrawing trade privileges, the government has also appointed a special committee to work on amending the labor law. “We have been trying to improve the situation,” Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina told CNN in May. Only better enforcement and systemic change can stop a Rana Plaza, or worse, happening again, says lawyer Hossain: “If it’s not going to stop with Rana, what are we wishing on ourselves? 10,000 dead?”

The Searchers

The Rana Plaza disaster may be prompting the authorities to undertake some overdue reforms, but they have yet to complete what is, especially for relatives and friends, a critical task: identifying some 300 of the dead. The National Forensic DNA Profiling Laboratory is analyzing tooth and bone samples from the bodies — which have now been buried — to try to match blood with people whose kin are unidentified. But the facility is too small to cope.

For Akhter and me to find the pair in her now iconic photo, the task was also daunting. Officials say that while hard disks of employee data were kept on each factory floor, none were recovered from the rubble. Before the collapse, moreover, companies weren’t required to keep off-site records of staff. Many of the managers who might have known the workers are either dead or afraid to come forward, given the arrests of the building and factory owners.

Akhter, 39, is a longtime activist for civil rights and has been helping grieving Rana Plaza families find some closure. During her rounds of the many Savar slums that are populated by RMG workers and clustered around garment factories, she asked if anyone knew the pair she had photographed, and showed the picture to Rana Plaza survivors. With the help of some of her students — Akhter teaches visual anthropology at Dhaka’s Pathshala South Asian Media Institute — she collected missing-person posters that victims’ relatives had put up near the site of Rana Plaza, which was eventually razed. Akhter pored over the pictures on the posters looking for a match. A few people told her they knew of a worker who had seen a man and woman die together on her floor.

Akhter and I drove to the edge of a dense clutch of corrugated-tin homes where we were met by Amana Khatun, who walked us to her one-room, mud-floor dwelling. Khatun, 25, had been working at Ether Tex, a factory on one of the building’s upper floors. When the structure collapsed, she squeezed through a hole to a room where other workers had gathered and where rescuers found them. Khatun says she tried to persuade a young man to come with her. He was near her in the dark and had asked for help pulling his wife or girlfriend from under a fallen piece of the building. “We couldn’t get her out,” Khatun recalls. When they failed, he asked her to help him make a bandage for his head. As she wrapped his shirt around his head, “I could feel blood running down his face,” she says, and urged him to come out. “I told him he could save his life. But he said, ‘I won’t leave her. We’ll die together.’” Khatun left the two of them in the dark. Sitting on her bed six weeks later, an overhead fan spreading the hot air around the room, Khatun looked at Akhter’s photograph. She shook her head: “It wasn’t them.”

Akhter and I visited three hospitals in the greater-Dhaka area that were treating survivors. It’s hard to show an image of a catastrophe to someone who has just lived through it. And yet most of the men and women who were trapped for hours or days in that same rubble looked at the pair in the picture without betraying much emotion and simply shook their heads: no, they didn’t know them. In the Centre for the Rehabilitation of the Paralysed, we met Rojina Begum, a 25-year-old sewing-machine operator at New Wave Bottoms, a company that once made clothes for, among others, Primark. Rojina didn’t recognize the pair, but the dead woman could have been her. Rojina spent three days in the dark after the collapse, her left arm pinned under a beam. Eventually a rescue worker gave her a small saw. She tried to cut through her arm and free herself but passed out and woke up in a hospital. A white bandage is wrapped around the stump of what remains of her arm.

While she couldn’t identify the pair in the photograph, Rojina was able to shed light on why so many people were at work that day in the first place. On April 23 an engineer found, and reported, cracks in pillars on the third floor. A local bank branch on one of the lower floors told its staff not to come in the next morning, which is when Rana Plaza buckled. The garment factories on the upper five floors, however, operated as usual. Like most survivors we talked to, Rojina had heard something was wrong by the time she showed up for work that fateful day. But she stayed, fearing she wouldn’t be paid if she left. “I saw a crack in the ceiling and I saw iron rods poking out of the floor,” says Rojina. “But my production manager told us not to go … He said he’d be watching us.” Many workers told us their bosses threatened to fire them if they didn’t go in; others said they were physically pushed or pulled into the building. “It is clearly stated in the labor law that no manager or owner can force a worker to work,” says Shamima Nasreen, president of the Independent Bangla Garment Workers Employee Federation. “This was violated.” If the workers inside Rana Plaza had been organized, says Nasreen, union leaders could have spoken up on their behalf and demanded some safety guarantees from the factory owners.

The right of Bangladeshi workers to form and belong to unions is enshrined in law, a legacy of the leftist movement that helped the country win its independence from Pakistan in 1971. But as the nation’s economy opened up during the late 1980s and ’90s, local companies began to compete for the global garment business, ultimately weakening workers’ rights, including the right to organize. In 2006 the government enacted the provision, now up for amendment, requiring workers who join unions to first notify their employers. The following year the authorities temporarily banned all union activity under a state of emergency during which many labor leaders were forced out of their jobs. Before 2008, says the Bangladesh Solidarity Center, there were 146 registered unions active inside factories; by 2011 only 10 or so. The current law makes it hard for unions to get support because factory owners often discriminate against organized workers, says the Solidarity Center. One consequence is that knowledge about unions is scarce. “Workers are not necessarily well informed,” says Farah Kabir, country director of labor-rights group ActionAid Bangladesh. “They don’t understand they can organize.”

Limited Options

As Rojina recovers from her injury and mourns her sister Morjina — she is believed to have died in Rana Plaza but her body is unidentified or missing — she’s trying to figure out what to do next. Rojina says she will not go back to work in a garment factory and says she won’t let her husband go back to his job in a jute plant either. But the garment industry pays better and offers more secure work than options like farming, domestic labor or day jobs on construction sites. From 2005 to 2012, the RMG sector’s employment rate grew about 11% a year, according to Rushidan Islam Rahman, research director at the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies. “If anybody doesn’t get a job, we can get them a job,” says Atiqul Islam, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers & Exporters Association (BGMEA). “It is an express guarantee.” But the authorities have yet to specify how survivors can establish their claim for employment beyond, as Islam says, contacting BGMEA if they are unable to find work on their own. It’s also unclear what long-term provisions will be made for the permanently injured. (Rojina may get financial help from Primark, which says it will offer long-term assistance to disabled New Wave Bottoms workers.)

With or without the government’s help, many of the Rana Plaza workers are likely to return to similar jobs. “We have not, as a country, been able to provide [workers] with an alternative livelihood,” says Kabir of ActionAid. Making sure factories are safe is important, she says, but factory suspensions or closures would deprive tens of thousands of workers of jobs. “It’s not good enough for [the government] to go around and say, ‘This building has a crack, we’re going to close it.’ If they’re going to close it, what’s the next step?” Waleda, who goes by one name, lives in Kakra Pinglo, a village several hundred kilometers from Dhaka, and had worked at Rana Plaza for three years. She injured her arm when she jumped out of a window onto a roof next door. Still, the 30-year-old says she intends to look for a job in another garment factory as soon as she’s better. “There’s no future for me here,” says Waleda, sitting next to a verdant paddy field near her home. “The only thing I’ll ask [my new employer] is how tall the building is. I won’t work on a high floor.”

On June 5, hundreds of Rana Plaza survivors gathered outside their razed workplace to demand the compensation promised them by BGMEA. The group says it has paid out two months’ salary, a month for every year of service, money for accrued holidays and overtime, and pension benefits — but many workers say they have yet to receive their due. Police came down hard on the rally, according to local daily Prothom Al, injuring dozens of protesters after charging at them with batons. A labor unionist who was present showed Akhter’s photograph to some demonstrators. Khadiza Begum, 20, told the unionist that the pair was her husband’s sister Halima and Halima’s husband Anis. Their bodies were buried in their village of Saunia, said Khadiza, whose husband also died in the collapse.

Village of Tears

We drove to Saunia, thinking our quest might end. Children ran past our car on the dirt roads in a last burst of playful exuberance before dark. As night fell, we weaved between the taillights of trucks and buses, passing road accidents, and men gathered around the flickering blue light of a television in their neighborhood tea stall. When we reached Saunia, we rolled down a window to ask where Anis and Halima lived and were pointed down ever smaller dirt lanes. By the time we pulled up to the small tin-walled house, dozens of men, women and curious kids were waiting for us, including Anis’ mother Asia Bewa.

She looked at the man in Akhter’s picture. “No, no,” she said after a short moment, shaking her head firmly. Khadiza was mistaken: it wasn’t Anis. And yet he also died in Rana Plaza — a quiet boy who liked old Bollywood movies and who was so miserable about leaving home that he couldn’t eat the fish his mother cooked for him the last time he returned for a half-day visit. After Anis and Halima were married, they left for Dhaka to work in the factories, but, their relatives say, they only intended to earn enough money to return to a more comfortable life in the village. “I asked him not to leave,” Asia told us. “But he said, ‘If I stay here, what will I do? How will I take care of my family?’”

As for the man and woman in Akhter’s photograph, we know this about them: They probably left the abiding poverty of a village for the forbidding opportunity of the city. Their labor contributed to the wealth of others, who did not sufficiently shield them from harm. In their last moments, without hope of rescue, they had only each other. We may never learn who they were in life, but we will remember their dignity in death.