Mahfuza Khatun, 22, died in the Tazreen Fashions factory fire. Photo courtesy Md. Abdul
To mark the one-year anniversary of the deadly Tazreen Fashions factory fire in Bangladesh, the Solidarity Center is highlighting stories of survivors and their families.
Mahfuza Khatun, 22, was a sewing machine operator on the fourth floor of the Tazreen Fashions garment factory when the multistory building went up in flames just outside Dhaka, the Bangladesh capital. Some 112 garment workers were killed in the November 24, 2012, tragedy, and Mahfuza was among them, although her body has never been found.
“I did everything to find her dead body. Unfortunately, all my efforts were in vain,” said Md. Abdul, Mahfuza’s husband.
Abdul and his 2-year-old son live with his parents and Abdul’s three siblings. As the eldest son, he must provide nearly all the financial support for his extended family.
“The family used to be supported by the income of me and my wife,” said Abdul, also a garment worker. Now, his income alone cannot cover all the family’s costs. As a result, he said, “My son often becomes sick, and I cannot take him to the doctor for lack of money.”
Mahfuza came to Dhaka in 2009 with her husband. “Despite her desire to continue to study, she started working to financially support my family. Until the last day of her job, she never spent a single penny outside of this family,” he said.
“On November 24, 2012, it was lunch time when I talked to her for the last time. In the evening, I heard about the fire at Tazreen Fashions and rushed to see my wife. I looked for my beloved wife in every nook and corner but could not find a trace of her.” His sister-in-law also was burned to death at Tazreen. Workers who escaped the blaze did so by jumping out windows because nearly all the stairwell doors were locked.
Neither Abdul nor his son have received any compensation on behalf of Mahfuza—with the exception of $25.64 he got from the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association. He spent nearly all his savings looking for her body. Property he owned near Tazreen was destroyed in the blaze and now, Abdul says, “I do not have anything for the future of my son.”
Survivors and the families of those injured or killed are still suffering a year after the Tazreen blaze, and no one has stepped up to help them survive the devastating financial and emotional loss. “I urge the government to behave responsibly and arrange security for every single citizen,” Abdul said. He seeks “enough compensation from BGMEA and the factory owner so that I can survive and educate my son.”
Survival is one of many struggles Abdul faces. “What will I say when my son asks about his mother?” he asked. “I will not even be able to show her grave to her son.”
When the Rana Plaza building collapsed in April, killing more than 1,200 Bangladesh garment workers, the disaster also injured thousands more workers, in many instances devastating their ability to support their families and plunging them into dire poverty.
Nasima was among the injured who survived the collapse of the multistory building. She suffers from severe wrist pain and as a result, is unable to work. She received no compensation for her injuries from the government, or from the multinational brands whose garments she sewed or from the factory owner—and now cannot even pay the rent or school fees. “I have three children and my children can’t go to school now,” she says.
Nasima was among several workers who met with Rep. Sander Levin (D-Mich.) recently at the Solidarity Center’s office in Dhaka, the Bangladesh capital. Joined by Dan Mozena, U.S. Ambassador to Bangladesh, Levin held three meetings with workers and union leaders to hear firsthand from survivors of the Rana Plaza and Tazreen factory disasters and to learn the obstacles garment workers face when seeking to form unions to improve the safety of their workplaces.
One plant-level union leader told Levin that factory managers prohibit him from talking with his co-workers. He was among 21 factory union leaders and seven union federation leaders to join the discussion.
Workers at another garment factory successfully formed a union despite managers’ attempts to convince them they did not need one. Julekha, vice president of Essex Ltd. Workers Union, told the congressman, “Now we know our rights. We are not afraid. They can’t harass us whenever they want. And we got a training and booklet on labor law from the federation leaders.” Julekha said workers now are waiting to hear back on demands they made to a management committee.
The United States in June suspended preferential trade benefits for Bangladesh because of chronic and severe labor rights violations. Because the benefits are suspended and not terminated, Bangladesh has the opportunity to again qualify for the U.S. Generalized System of Preferences (GSP) by improving worker rights, laws and practices. A key measure of that program will be whether newly registered unions will be allowed to represent worker interests.
Since the suspension of benefits, the Bangladesh government has reinstated a garment worker rights group whose registration it had revoked in 2010, and media reports indicate the government dropped charges against two garment worker activists. But union leaders told Levin and Mozena they worried that the country’s new labor law, passed last month, is a step backwards for worker rights.
Levin expressed concern that garment workers are still facing threats when they seek to form unions and said that workers’ dignity and safety must be ensured. Mozena told the group that he believes “workers have the complete right to form trade unions. On behalf of my government, I am giving my commitment to you that I will do everything for you.”