'They slapped us if we argued. We wiped our tears and went to work': The brutal existence of a Bangladeshi garment worker

Tahmina Akhter Sadia was in the Rana Plaza when it collapsed. She describes how the disaster unfolded

Tuesday 23 April began began like every day. I woke up around 7am, helped my mother prepare breakfast, kissed my two sisters and baby brother goodbye and left our house near the hospital in Savar.

My walk to the Rana Plaza took about half an hour. I worked on the seventh floor at New Wave Styles, where we made clothes for international brands including Primark, Texman, Pellegrini, Siplec and Yves Dorsey. All the workers in the building used the stairs on one side – the other staircase from the market side is not for us. I had heard from another friend, Riva, who works at Ether Tex on the fifth floor, that there was a fire escape towards the back of the building, but I had never seen it.

For the five months I worked at the factory, I stuck to a strict routine. I had to be at work on time or my production manager and line chief would get angry. Sometimes, being late meant losing a whole day’s pay. A usual day at the factory would last between 10 to 12 hours and the money I earned supported all five of my family. My mother cannot work at the moment as she looks after my baby brother. I had to find a way of earning money after my father left us last year when my mother got pregnant. I got the job with the help of my cousin and some friends who also worked at New Wave. Although I am only 15,  according to the factory records I am 23. They could fire me at any time as I was never given a contract.

All of us would be tired by the time we’d climbed up to the factory floor. Once we got there, we usually stood by the open windows to catch our breath before we started work. I was an operator of one sewing machine, like most of the people at New Wave. There were also supervisors, line-chiefs, production managers and other officials who worked there – at any one time there would be many hundreds of workers on the 7,000sq ft factory floor.

It was such a small place to work and the heat in summer made it feel even smaller. There was no air conditioning and most of the floors didn’t even have any ceiling fans. Some of the senior workers had asked the management for fans but they had told us to wait a few more months. That day we’d been working for just over an hour when a surprising thing happened. Our production manager, Rana, said we should leave the building and come back after lunch. Shocked, we did as we were told, then when we got back we were given the rest of the day off.

Some of us, including my best friend Ruby, who is also 15 and does the same job as me, could not believe our luck. This had hardly ever happened before. We usually only got leave on public holidays, and hardly ever took casual leave. We were scared to even ask for sick leave as the production manager would threaten to fire us if we took too many days off. A month back I had a fever and asked to go home. One of the managers asked me to cool off at the sick room on the second floor, but I wasn’t allowed to leave. Reshma’s production manager was even worse  – she had injured her left hand a few days before and was bleeding, but was told to carry on even if she passed out. 

That night, we realised the reason behind the sudden holiday when we found out from television news that cracks had been found on the second floor. The next day we went to the building and asked to stop work for the day. The other owners of the factory forced their workers to enter the building. Some waved off the concerns, calling the news “bogus”. Others threatened not to pay people unless they got on with their jobs.

Our production manager slapped a few of us who argued that it was not safe to be there. We wiped our tears and went to work soon enough. Around 8.40am on 24 April, the production manager told us that if we had any doubts about the cracks, we could go to the second floor and check it ourselves. I was talking to Ruby when the power went out about 20 minutes later. As soon as the gigantic generator was switched on, around 9.03am, there was a sound like a thunder clap and the roof crumbled down on us. I lost consciousness. I woke up and found myself engulfed by darkness. There were dead bodies all around me. But, unlike some of the others, I was not pinned down by any of the huge beams.

I prayed, thinking that this was my end. Beside me I saw the lifeless bodies of Saiful and Ruby. Fortunately, I was rescued five hours later. My production manager died in the rubble.

I have not been able to sleep properly ever since. I feel like I am the most fortunate person on earth to see my family again. But this happiness faded as I soon realised that, without a job, I cannot feed my family. I saw a beam of hope when I heard on the news that all workers at Rana Plaza would be paid four months’ salary. When I went to collect mine, I was given just one month’s. When we asked for the rest, representatives from the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, who were giving out the money, told us this was what we were being given, and that was it. If we argued, law-enforcement officials may be summoned. Five of us who survived are now looking for work again. We are scared to go into any building now, let alone the factories. But we have little choice as we need to support our families.

Interview by Syed Tashfin Chowdhury