Mosammot Bulbuli is one of the millions of people who work in factories in Bangladesh that supply clothing to the rest of the world.
She is also among the thousands of people who were working at Rana Plaza in Savar five years ago when it collapsed. Over 1,100 people lost their lives; more than 2,000 were injured.
Survivors recount this moment in the same way: The lights went out in the first few minutes of the morning shift; then the generators started up, noisily; the walls were shaking; the ceiling collapsed and fell. Then the bodies were everywhere. Then total darkness.
Few weeks later, some of the world’s largest retailers have started signing an agreement with local unions regarding workplace safety standards.
This agreement attempted to shed light on the dangerous conditions inside. Outside, in the industrial area of Savar, factories, tanneries and dyeing factories – all crucial to the global supply chain – have contributed to an environmental disaster. Clogged with toxic waste, the wetlands, canals and streets of Savar have become breeding grounds for mosquitoes and disease.
Over a million people live there.
We visited Savar last year to see what had changed and what had not changed since the Rana Plaza disaster. We learned that the house of Muhammad Moinuddin and his wife, Rakeya, was inundated with poisonous water.
Bangladesh, which is the second largest garment exporter after China, is able to save manufacturers’ costs by paying one of the lowest minimum wages in the world and often turning a blind eye to laws, agreements and standards. which would protect workers and the environment but increase prices.
A complex set of laws and regulations, often flouted, allow different types of factories to operate to different standards.
The problems are exacerbated by Bangladesh’s poverty, which pushes millions of children out of school and into the workforce. They often lie to get around the legal working age.
When we asked the ages of people sewing “NYC” on T-shirts, they turned away from us.
In one factory, the owner told us: “We cannot follow all the rules, not even those concerning the employment of children. If I follow the rules, I must increase the prices.
Ms Bulbuli’s shifts lasted at least eight hours and involved sewing some of the more than 3,000 pants that her factory produced daily.
The pollution spewed out from the factories is only getting worse as the tanneries have been ordered to move to Savar from Dhaka, the capital, in an attempt to save the Buriganga River, a lifeline for Dhaka, whose water s’ thickens with pollution.
Bangladesh has a billion dollar tanning industry. Above, a tannery worker puts animal skin into a toner. Exposure to the mixture of chemicals used to treat the skin can cause serious health problems.
While many of the Rana Plaza survivors we met on our trip last year found jobs in factories, some are still struggling for work and compensation. Others made a point of helping the victims.
Mahbub Hasan Ridoy, who was buried for 20 hours under the rubble, says he is the only one to survive from his department. When we first met him, Mr. Ridoy was working in a drugstore and was determined to keep the spotlight on the survivors. He said the government “has received huge donations. But where is the money?
“They used the incident at Rana Plaza,” he said. “We need a full investigation.”
Mossamot Rekha Akhter had worked at Rana Plaza since the age of 13. She injured her arm in the disaster and when we saw her she still couldn’t move it well. She said there are a lot of things she can’t remember about that day. Her husband, Muhammed Saiful Islam, was also injured in the collapse. He is dizzy and is unable to do work that requires him to stand for long periods of time.
Shilpi Akhter lost an arm at Rana Plaza; he was under a sewing machine when the ceiling collapsed. When we met her, her education was supported by a Malaysian. Like Mossamot Rekha Akhter, she does not remember much of that day.
Ms. Akhter said that she did not dream of being a doctor or an engineer. Instead, she told us, “I dream of living on my own terms, of being independent. I never want to go back to clothes again.
Daniel Rodrigues is a Portugal-based photojournalist. Cláudia Brandão is a journalist based in Brazil.