Factory blaze has financial fall-out

Ratna Begum is too injured to work after the fire
Ratna Begum is too injured to work after the fire
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As 112 of her colleagues perished in a Bangladesh clothing factory fire, Dipa Akter got out by jumping from the third floor through a hole made by breaking apart an exhaust fan. Her left leg is wrapped in bandages and she has trouble walking. But she still wants start work there again.

Ms Akter, 19, said: “If the factory owner reopens the factory sometime soon, we will work again here. If it’s closed for long, we have to think of alternatives.”

Major Western retailers whose products were found in the fire have distanced themselves from the Tazreen Fashions factory in Dhaka, but workers who survived have not. They can’t afford to.

Factories such as the one which was gutted on 24 November are a rare lifeline in this desperately poor country – without it, many of the more than 1,200 surviving employees have no work and few prospects.

Ms Akter spent 25 minutes trying to get down the smoke-filled stairs before jumping, which she said was “the only option other than being burned”.

Almost one-third of Bangladesh’s 150 million people live in extreme poverty. There are few formal jobs in the villages where about 70 per cent of the country’s population lives. Textile factory work is one of the few paths to secure a stable income – especially for young, uneducated rural women, who are already trained to make clothes at home. The industry has given women in this Muslim-majority, conservative nation an acceptable opportunity to leave their homes and join the workforce.

Ms Akter made about 4,550 takas (£34) a month sewing trousers, shirts and nightgowns. Her husband makes about the same at another factory, but she said they cannot live just on his salary. Now the landlord is demanding rent and she has bills to pay at a grocery shop. She said: “I am in big trouble because I don’t have any savings.”

The government announced on Saturday that it would give 200,000 takas (£1,525) to the families of those who died in the fire and 50,000 takas (£380) to those who were injured. It also said unhurt workers would get their November wages, but many staff are demanding four months’ salary as compensation. It is not clear when, or even if, Tazreen will rebuild the factory.

One worker, Ferdousy, 20, said: “If I am not compensated, I have to start begging. I have to move to the street.”

With overtime, she earned up to 7,000 takas (£53) a month from Tazreen as a sewing machine operator. She escaped unharmed by running out as soon as the fire alarm went off, ignoring her supervisors’ insistence that she stay at her station.

But now she needs to find work again, or be compensated while the company rebuilds. Her husband needs treatment for asthma and is too sick to work. Her two children need food. The rent needs to be paid.

“I worked hard to support my family. I always tried to cross my production targets so I could earn extra money to support my family. But now I have no place to go,” she said.

Ratna Begum, 30, is too injured to go back to work for the foreseeable future – she jumped out of a fifth-floor window to escape, thinking: “If I die, my family will at least get my body.”

Now she has a bandage on her head and cannot walk without help. Without her monthly pay of up to 5,000 takas (£38), she wonders how her family will afford rent, food, her medical bills and schooling for her two sons. Without compensation soon, the family, from the desperately poor Rangpur district of Dhaka, fear they will have to sell their only property: three cows.

The factory had no emergency exits and police are continuing to question three managers suspected of locking in the workers during the fire.

As difficult as life is for survivors, some families don’t even know for certain whether their loved ones are among the dead. Dozens of bodies too badly burned to be identified have already been buried.

“My mother has gone to the factory, she has not returned home yet,” Rumi, seven, said as she showed a passport-size photo of her mother.

Her father, Ahedul, said he went to the hospital mortuary but could not tell whether his wife’s remains were there.

He said: “The government said it will compensate us, but how will I compensate my baby?”