Nazma Akhter, left, and her daughter, Riza, 10, stand outside their home in a slum in Ashulia, a suburb of Dhaka, Bangladesh. Nazma is a survivor of the December 2012 fire in Tazreen Fashions Factory, which killed 112 of her co-workers.
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. And then came the fire at Tazreen Fashions Ltd., the multistoried 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 tomorrow, 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.
And 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 -- the girl’s dream -- 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 that 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 versus the real possibility of premature death or injury.
By 2011, about 12 percent of women in the country between 15 and 30 years of age worked in the garment industry, according to an August 2012 study by Rachel Heath at the University of Washington and Ahmed Mushfiq Mobarak at Yale University’s School of Management in New Haven, Connecticut. Pay was 13 percent more than in other industries, and factories favored women because they were seen as better at sewing -- and more compliant.
Perhaps most important, the researchers found, 27 percent 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. The daughters of the garment workers had prospects of getting jobs - - secretarial or even managerial -- better than their mothers could ever hope for.
Even at her age, Riza, a poetry-obsessed math whiz, understands that 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 Montana-sized country -- 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.
Orders from the world’s biggest global retailers -- including Wal-Mart Inc., Gap Inc. and Hennes & Mauritz AB -- helped the industry account for 6 percent of gross domestic product, earn precious foreign exchange and, last year, make up almost 80 percent of exports.
“On one hand, don’t forget that this industry has allowed Bangladesh to cut poverty by a third, don’t forget that it has created millions of jobs, don’t forget that it has helped put more young girls in school than ever before,” said Gilbert Houngbo, deputy director general of the International Labour Organization in Geneva, which has funneled millions of dollars in the last year to help inspect Bangladeshi factories.
“On the other hand, you can’t do that at the expense of the women’s basic rights: the right to feel safe, to be safe, to have decent work environments,” he said.
On a steaming hot day in October, the smell of garbage thick in the air and flies buzzing around her sleeping children, Akhter relives the day she almost died. The circumstances of her life, her health and work were reconfirmed last week in a telephone interview.
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.
The cries awaken Riza as neighbors crowd into the shed to hear the story. The girl slips off a thin sheet on the floor and starts putting things in her school bag, even though classes are over for the day. Three notebooks, a small box with a pencil, a sharpener and half an eraser, a book of Bengali grammar and an empty lunch box barely fit into her used Hannah Montana backpack.
She walks about 10 minutes to her school. The yard is empty, the gates chained shut. She slips between them. Her bag, strapped to her chest, barely squeezes through the gap in the door left by a padlock and chain.
It’s quiet there, she says. She wiggles back out with a small box in her hand -- her secret collection of pencils that she has won from her friends in spelling contests and keeps hidden in her school desk.
“Look at all the colors,” Riza says, rolling her hands through the red and green pencils knocking around in the knock-off Disney box, with a barely recognizable Mickey Mouse motif on its cover.
Back in the shed, 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, totaling about $2,200.
Now, she said, she and her invalid husband borrow money from neighbors, convinced that they can pay back the debt after the factory owner is convicted and more compensation is paid out. She bases this theory mostly on rumors from other survivors of the fire. Riza’s school has offered a one-year reprieve from fees while her mother recovers.
At the end, she reaches into a small plastic bag, pulls out an old newspaper and points to a picture of Delwar Hossain, the factory owner whose conviction she awaits. He is a short, stocky man with a full beard and a thinning head of hair.
A day after Akhter curses his name, Hossain is sitting in a hot, barricaded room on the top of another of his factories, sweat rolling off his forehead.
Outside the door, a crowd of women shout insults and throw the metal parts of sewing machines at the door. The women came to work that morning to find all supplies had been moved, as had most of the machinery. Hossain, they said, was shutting the factory down overnight and would vanish without paying them.
Three floors below, the doors were locked, and riot police loitered about, unsure whether to intervene. About 800 women have locked themselves inside the factory, demanding back pay and severance.
“I don’t have any money,” said Hossain, answering questions briefly while he waited for the police to rescue him. “Ever since Tazreen, I have lost all my contracts. I owe the bank so much money, they must have come in and taken the supplies and the machines.”
In February, a Bangladeshi court charged Hossain and his wife with homicide for the deaths in his factory. He pleaded not guilty and the trial has yet to begin.
Of her three children, Akhter has the greatest hopes for Riza. Her oldest son, Rashid, 11, has no real interest in school. He has proven to be adept at working at the tea shop down the road, and wants to drive an auto rickshaw. The youngest boy has barely begun his education.
Riza is special, said her school principal, Rahima Begum.
“How hard-working she is,” said 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 into a microphone that the principal has borrowed from a neighboring marriage hall.
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 that 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. She met her grandmother only that time, and since the family doesn’t own a phone, hasn’t spoken to her since then. Her grandmother can’t read or write, so she isn’t sure if the weekly letters she writes to her are actually reaching her. She has received a reply three times, each written by an uncle.
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.