As a society of consumers, we have become desensitized in our process of making informed purchasing decisions. It is the goal of Utopiat to inspire a different way of consumption: One that does not cater to greedy corporations who ruthlessly reduce our collective humanity to a matrix of mindless consumption.
The Rana Plaza collapse of 2013 is the worst garment industry accident in history, and its victims worked for some of the lowest minimum wages in the world. But, despite the monotonous, soulless work and the ridiculous hours, the fact remains that the garment industry pays more than any other hourly work in Bangladesh. This incident impeccably exemplifies the many facets of corporate irresponsibility and trickled-down greed in the garment industry as it resulted in the suffering of its garment makers.
Although widely reported by the mainstream media, little improvements have been made to the conditions of the garment making industry in Bangladesh or any other third world manufacturing country. People will continue to suffer and die as long as we choose to turn our backs to the real cost of fast fashion.
After endless research in preparing for our Utopiat Consumer Column, we decided to kick off this series with this fictional account of the tragic event inspired by its most famous victim, Reshma Begum, who was trapped under the rubble of the collapsed eight-story building for 17 torturous days before she was rescued.
Her harrowing experience is one that should shock the modern world. We hope it shocks you.
It is 7 in the morning and I am still in bed, tired and down with a virus. Usually I would be on my way to work, walking through the smog-filled city of Dhaka to the factory where I work: Rana Plaza. Getting the line supervisor or the production head to grant a day off is next to impossible. I glance at my little baby lying next to me, also down with fever and say a silent prayer. If only things would get a little better.
Just then the phone rang. Before I could even place the receiver on my ear I hear someone shout from the other end, “Mr. Rana wants us all in the factory at the usual time of 8am." The penalty for missing work is one month’s pay withheld, which I cannot even afford to think about....so I get up without hesitating.
The only reason I was still in bed was because yesterday a city inspector evacuated the building. From what I could gather from people around, cracks were seen appearing in the walls of the lower floors.
I quickly feed my child and hand him to my mother-in-law. After stealing one last glimpse of my sleeping son, I quickly grab a bag of crackers for later and shut the door behind me.
As I arrive at the factory I notice everyone standing around at the doors. There are people murmuring about the cracks being dangerous. I overhear Geetha, who sits in my assembly line, expressing concern about the building’s safety and I start to worry myself. After all there are over 3000 people in this factory; if they are worried, shouldn’t I be as well?
Suddenly I hear a commotion. I cannot see through the crowd, but I hear screams and sense a panic. As people begin to move I see the source: a large group of Mr. Rana's goons, beating workers without discretion. Their sticks and bats mercilessly crack on legs and backs. A few people were bleeding from the skull. I see a woman, older than me, crying uncontrollably. Blood oozes from her scalp to mix with the tears on her chin.
In a short amount of time, most of the workers moved inside the building to avoid the beating. It was then that I realized Mr. Rana had hired these men to ensure that nobody protests about the cracks and works as usual. I follow the flow of people and enter into the building with the others. For the first time I see large cracks decorate the walls in the stairwell. How did I not see them before?
At 8:45 I am sewing the hem of a t-shirt. The label says “Benneton.”
I can sense that people are still uneasy. I keep playing the scene at the factory doors again and again in my head. The t-shirt is red like the blood on the ground outside. The thought makes me feel dizzy and I realize that I haven’t eaten.
All of a sudden the power shuts off and the room goes quiet. The anxiety is palpable.
The generator kicks in and we breathe a collective sigh of relief, but as I lower my head to work on the hem again, I feel a tiny tremor. Is that an earthquake? My mind had not even wrapped itself around the idea when a larger one shook the walls. By now most of us were standing in a corner, unsure of what to do. As I stood there nervous and scared, all I could think about was my family. My beautiful baby sleeping so peacefully, my loving and caring family. I just want to go home.
I had the weirdest dream. I dreamt that I was running through a beautiful sunflower field dressed in a white sari, straight out of a Bollywood movie. The skies were the most beautiful shade of blue. Far away I could see a waterfall; the waterfall was like a curtain and on the other side I could hear my son crying out for me. I ran through the field into the water, desperate to find him.
I wake up gasping for air. I cannot see anything through the dust. I remember the earthquake vividly now. I pray with gratitude for being alive, but soon panic starts to creep in. I don’t know what time it is or how long I have been unconscious. I feel a searing pain through my spine. I am pinned by my hair and I see dead people everywhere, some of them my very good friends. The gravity of the situation dawns on me.
I hear someone screaming nearby. I cautiously move my head in the direction of the sound and see a young boy trapped by a fallen pillar, badly crushed from waist down. I ask him to try pushing the pillar, silently praying for him to be granted the strength to move it. The pillar remained unmoved.
I scream for help. I want to save this boy. I want someone to get him out. I remember him. He is the sweet little kid who brought us tea from the nearby stalls during the occasional five minute breaks. I shout and shout till I cough from the dust. No one can hear us through this. I try to talk to him about random things. A bad attempt at distracting him. I don’t know what to do. My mind is racing but I can’t move an inch.
I think I am getting claustrophobic and I feel myself blacking out.
Weird dreams again. I think it is morning and I can hear rescuers digging for survivors, close. Using a pipe nearby I yell, desperate for them to hear me. Their footsteps and cries are fading away. I suddenly remember the kid from the tea stall and yell out to him. He doesn’t respond. Somewhere deep inside I am glad he is free from the pain he was in.
I am thirsty from all the dust but there is no water. I gather all the spit and swallow it down. I still have the crackers; I eat one knowing that I may need to save them for later. I keep falling in and out of consciousness. I can’t keep track of the time or days.
Days later, I can hear people digging near me. I scream out to them but again my cries go unheard. Suddenly, some water bottles fall through the cracks in the wreckage. I thank my stars and take a grateful sip from the bottle. Someone up there is looking out for me.
I think about my family. I think about taking my job at the factory three years ago and how I have wasted my days toiling within its walls. This is where I would die, and nobody would be left to support them.
Every day I pray for someone to hear my cries and every day I am disappointed. The crackers are gone and so is the water. It seems like the rescuers have assumed there can be no more survivors in the rubble. I feel tears run down my dirty cheeks.
I close my eyes and picture my family one last time. From somewhere deep inside, a tiny voice speaks up. Was it my son? “Try once more for me, just once more.” But I am tired. There is no point in trying. I have been doing just that for what must be weeks now. But the voice persists.
I open my eyes. “Help me! I am trapped here, please can someone hear me!” I was met with nothing but silence again. I turn my head away from the cracks and close my eyes, knowing I will never open them again.
But wait. I can suddenly hear people shouting back at me.
Adrenaline rushed through me and I start yelling at the top of my voice. It’s now or never.
Forty minutes later I saw a face. The sunlight around his face made him look like a God with a bright halo around. I closed my eyes and cried.
To me, this man was God. He was sent by God. They cut my hair to free me from the rubble but I do not care.
I am alive and I am going home.
The photo we chose for this piece was perhaps the most iconic that was taken after the disaster. It depicts the very human emotions of fear and love, bringing two people together just moments before the collapse of the factory building took their lives.
From the photographer Taslima Akhter: "Every time I look back to this photo, I feel uncomfortable — it haunts me. It’s as if they are saying to me, we are not a number — not only cheap labor and cheap lives. We are human beings like you. Our life is precious like yours, and our dreams are precious too." - TIME magazine