“Now my life seems worthless,” Shahanaz Begum said, crying. “I cannot see through my right eye. I have problems in my spinal cord and can’t even walk properly. I cannot sit because my left leg was broken (and did not heal well), my right leg is filled with blood clots and I cannot lift heavy weight.”
Shahanaz sustained all these injuries while fleeing the burning building where she worked, the Tazreen Fashions garment factory. The only way she could escape with her life was to jump through a window: The building had no fire escapes and the stairs led to the burning storage room on the first floor. And the only reason she is alive today is because she defied the factory manager who told her she could not leave.
A year ago this weekend, 112 garment workers died in a fire that burned Tazreen Fashions, located in the outskirts of Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka. Women and men working overtime on the production lines were trapped when fire broke out in the first-floor warehouse. Workers scrambled toward the roof, jumped from upper floors or were trampled by their panic-stricken co-workers. Some could not run fast enough and were lost to the flames and smoke.
Shahanaz’s daughter, Tahera, also worked at Tazreen. Since the tragedy, Tahera’s mental state is fragile. Shahanaz’s husband married a second wife after Shahanaz lost her right eye in the disaster and, now with two families, he only occasionally provides Shahanaz with financial support. With her injuries, Shahanaz says, “I am not able to work and I don’t think that I will be able to work anymore.”
As a result, she has stopped taking her medicine because she cannot afford it. She can no longer support her mother, as she did before. And she is unable to pay her rent. She spent the compensation she received after the disastrous fire (from the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers Employers Association and two private organizations) on the extensive treatment she required in four separate hospitals.
For the survivors of the Tazreen fire and their families, Shahanaz’s untenable situation is far from unique. Shahanaz and many other workers who survived the events of that awful evening now face very uncertain futures, abandoned by the factory owner, the brands and the government and left with few resources to deal with the financial and emotional disaster they continue to experience.
Morsheda is forced to send her son to live with relatives because she can no longer support him after being injured in the Tazreen Fashions factory fire. Credit: Solidarity Center
Morsheda could not travel to her home village in Bangladesh for the recent Eid holiday because she could not afford the trip. Her 9-year-old son, who lives in the village with his grandmother, told neighbors there that he does not have parents because if he did, they would be with him for the holiday
“You cannot imagine how very painful it is for parents to hear such words from their child,” she said.
Since sustaining severe injuries in the November 24, 2012, Tazreen Fashions garment factory fire, Morsheda, 25, has been too disabled to work. Without funds for her son’s education, she sent him to live with her relatives.
Morsheda has lost the use of her right hand, so badly damaged during her flight from the blaze that swept through the multistory factory that she can only prepare meals with the help of her sister. To get out of the factory, Morsheda, like nearly every Tazreen survivor, was forced to jump from a window to safety after she and co-workers found the stairwell exits locked. They escaped even though their manager had ordered them back to work when the fire alarm sounded. Her right eye was gashed as a result of her fall, and she still has difficulty seeing from it.
“My whole body is swollen when I wake up from sleep,” she said. “Every night I feel pain in my right leg and my waist.”
Her husband, also a garment factory worker, is not paid enough to buy the medicine she needs. “With his income, it is tough to buy medicine, to run a family, to pay for my son’s educational expenses, to pay back loans, etc.,” she said. The little money Morsheda received in compensation for her injuries was quickly spent on her medical care.
Morsheda believes that the factory owner, the brands and the government have forgotten her and the thousands of other Tazreen garment workers now too injured to support themselves and their families. Morsheda says she needs real assistance if she and her family are to survive.
Morsheda and her husband came to Dhaka, the Bangladesh capital, several years ago in search of jobs. With two incomes, the couple could pay for their son’s education. But now, out of school and missing an education, they fear their child will face a bleak future, one that likely will continue the cycle of poverty.
“Leading a better life is not only the hope of rich people but also the poor people like us,” Morsheda said, crying. “Garment owners have much money. They have the capability to run so many garment factories. They have nothing to lose. But we poor have lost everything.”
When someone knocks on her door, Anjuma knows a debt collector is likely on the other side. But ever since she escaped with severe injuries from the disastrous fire at the Tazreen Fashions factory where she worked as a cleaner, she has had no money to pay her bills.
“People become the prisoners of jail, but I became a prisoner of the world,” Anjuma, 45, said with a blank look. When the fire broke out, killing 112 workers at Tazreen, on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh, Anjuma jumped out a fourth-floor window onto a nearby roof. But her leg was sliced by a metal rod, and the debilitating injuries she sustained have made it impossible for her to work again. Faruk, a fellow worker who helped her escape, died in the consuming blaze. Anjuma also lost three cousins at Tazreen, one of whom was never found.
“My husband is a rickshaw puller but he is very old and not able to work more,” Anjuma said. She has three sons and a daughter. Among them, only one takes care of her. But he earns little, and has gone into debt as well, trying to help her. She has so many medical expenses, she cannot afford rent or food, and her landlord twice locked her out of the house for not paying rent. She’s now seven months behind in payments to her landlord.
Anjuma received no compensation for her injuries. Not from her factory employer. Not from the Western brands whose clothes were made at Tazreen. And not from the government. Each week, she travels to a hospital for treatment and finds it difficult even to pay for the transportation.
Since the Tazreen disaster, Anjuma often feels dizzy. She has difficulty walking and is weak because “days pass by without food.” She recently passed out from blood clots in her nose and chest. Once, Anjuma stitched beautiful kantha (handcrafted material). Now, she can no longer do fine needlework because she cannot see well.
As a survivor of the Tazreen fire, Anjuma wants the government to help her with medical expenses so she can again earn a wage and pay her bills. Anjuma does not know how she will manage her medical treatment expenses, pay her debt or support her household. But she does know this: She will never again utter the words, “garment factory.”