For four days Rubina Begum lay buried in debris, waiting for death. But the seamstress survived the Rana Plaza building collapse that killed more than 1,000 workers near Dhaka in 2013. Today, she often wishes she had died that April morning.
Trapped under a machine, with only her neck above the debris and the “smell of death” surrounding her, Begum prayed to be rescued so she could see her mother one more time.
But five years on, as she struggles to earn enough to take care of her family, Begum often wonders about her “miraculous rescue” from Bangladesh’s worst industrial disaster.
“For nine years I had a monthly income and managed to support my family,” said the 35-year-old, who used to stitch pockets on to trousers on the sixth floor of the Rana Plaza.
“But today I don’t. The compensation I got after the crash was mostly spent on my treatment. Now I can’t work like I used to, have no regular income and there are days I wish I had not survived Rana Plaza.”
Begum is among more than 2,000 workers who were injured when the eight-story building crashed on April 24, 2013, burying thousands under concrete slabs and mangled machines.
Since then, global brands, manufacturers, civil society and unions have come together to address factory safety in Bangladesh, the world’s second-largest garment exporter with some 4 million people working in its 4,000-plus factories.
Rana Plaza survivors have grappled with economic distress and health issues, many too scared to go back to work in Bangladesh’s $28 billion garment industry and others not fit for full-time jobs, campaigners said.
“The injured workers are living with the mental and physical scars of Rana Plaza,” said Amirul Haque Amin, president of the National Garment Workers Federation, Bangladesh’s largest union.
“Most are daily wage workers now, with injuries that make it difficult for them to take up full time jobs. The compensation they received dried up very fast, leaving with them with nothing.”
The land on which Rana Plaza stood is today overgrown with vegetation and strewn with garbage. The debris has been cleared but scraps of fabric still lie around. On the crowded pavement alongside stands a concrete memorial to the disaster’s victims.
“Our memories are sprayed with a billion tears” and “we will never forget”, the dusty epitaphs read.
“But we have been forgotten,” Rana Plaza survivor Lutfa Begum told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, sitting in her one-room home not far from the memorial.
“Nobody has checked on us for years now. The compensation money I got has long gone, spent on my daughter’s wedding, buying two cows and medical expenses. Now I make and sell some sweets.”
In 2013, the 40-year-old was earning 6,500 taka ($78) a month stitching trouser seams on the eighth floor of Rana Plaza.
She clearly remembers being very nervous walking into work on April 24.
“The previous day, we had been evacuated from the building because a big, visible crack had developed,” she said.
“But the next day, we were told that everything was fine and we should go to work. A lot of us felt unsure but we were told we would lose our jobs if we didn’t.”
As she settled down to work on her sewing machine, she remembers the electricity going off and the generators on the roof of the building kicking in.
“Then there was some loud noise and the roof just came crashing down even as we tried to move towards the door,” she said, tears rolling down her cheeks.
“I was trapped and couldn’t move much. Near me were two other workers. I reached out to touch them. They were both dead.”
She was rescued six hours later and spent a month in hospital. She injured her backbone and lost hearing in one ear.
In just over two years, a trust fund made up of government, retailers, employers, trade unions and charities, raised $30 million to compensate more than 2,800 claimants affected by the disaster, according to the International Labour Organization.
But many are now struggling as they were unable to save or invest any of the money, which they spent on medical bills and daily expenses, campaigners said.
“My compensation money finished a year back, most of it on daily expenses,” said one survivor Nilofur Yasmin, who received 95,000 taka.
“I put in 20,000 to start a small business but got cheated by my partner. Now I don’t have enough money to fund my children’s education. Working as a maid doesn’t pay as much.”
Rubina and Lutfa Begum first met at a forum for survivors to discuss compensation. Since then, the two meet every April 24 at the Rana Plaza memorial to share the grief of families who lost someone.
“On that one day, we feel stronger standing together, knowing that we don’t have much of a future to look forward to,” Lutfa Begum said, wiping her tears and holding her youngest son close.
“Ideally I would want to go back to my village and open a shop. But in the last five years, I have stopped believing I can.”