TO GIVE HER DAUGHTER THE OPPORTUNITYneither she nor her mother had, Nazma Akhter made the only choices possible for a poor, illiterate woman in Bangladesh.
She escaped her tiny village, bolting the door behind her so her mother couldn’t chase her down. She lived in a shed the size of a parking space in Dhaka, the capital. She worked as much as 12 hours a day making jeans, T-shirts and dresses, earning no more than $98 a month.
The income was just about enough to bring her family to Dhaka and put her daughter, Riza, in school. And then came the fire at Tazreen Fashions, the multistoried factory where Akhter was sewing jeans on the fourth floor on Nov. 24, 2012.
It killed 112 of her co-workers and was the worst fire for Bangladesh’s garment trade, although not as many died as the 1,129 who perished April 25, 2013, when a factory collapsed because of shoddy, illegal construction.
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But for Akhter, who guesses she is in her early 30s, the consequences were lasting.
She limps to demonstrate how her leg was stuck in a pile of bodies. She unravels her sari to show the scar on her back, from hours of surgery after she jumped out the building to escape, falling two stories. She still can’t work.
And she says she’d do it all again if it meant Riza, now 10 and an excellent student, could get a good education and a chance at an office job, the girl’s dream.
Nothing could be further from the life lived by Akhter’s mother, who spends her days pulling stalks of rice in the paddy fields.
“She worked so hard,” said Akhter, whispering in the dark shed as her three children slept in the afternoon heat. “My mother couldn’t stand straight anymore. I couldn’t live like that. I couldn’t make my daughter live like that.”
The lasting irony of Bangladesh’s $20 billion garment industry, where substandard practices have resulted in the deaths of at least 2,000 people since 2005, is that it is the only way for women and girls to claw their way out of poverty and illiteracy.
For some 3.5 million in the country, mostly women, the 10-hour shifts spent hunched over a sewing machine offer a once-in-a-generation prospect to better their lives.
They are all making the same bargain: players in a global game of chance, balancing the stability of money for food, school and medicine versus the real possibility of premature death or injury.
By 2011, about 12 percent of women in the country between 15 and 30 years of age worked in the garment industry, according to an August 2012 study by Rachel Heath at the University of Washington and Ahmed Mushfiq Mobarak at Yale University’s School of Management.
Pay was 13 percent more than in other industries, and factories favored women because they were seen as good seamstresses and more compliant.
Perhaps most important, the researchers found, 27 percent more young girls were going to school than before the garment industry existed in Bangladesh, and this increase was almost entirely focused in the schools near garment factories.
The daughters of the garment workers had prospects of getting jobs — secretarial or even managerial — better than their mothers could ever hope for.
Even at her age, Riza, a poetry-obsessed math whiz, understands that her mother’s factory job was an essential, if eventually damaging, step in her family’s quest for both security and prosperity. Standing in the front yard of her school, she imagines a life beyond what her mother achieved.
“Tell me something,” she asked. “Do offices catch fire like factories do? Because I want to work in an office someday.”
In the last three decades, Bangladesh’s garment industry has grown to $20 billion a year in revenue from $12 million, mostly on the back of cheap workers.
For this Montana-sized country — home to three military coups and dozens of violent uprisings since independence in 1971 — garment-making was a godsend.
Orders from the world’s biggest global retailers — including Wal-Mart, Gap and H&M — helped the industry account for 6 percent of gross domestic product, earn precious foreign exchange and, last year, make up almost 80 percent of exports.
“On one hand, don’t forget that this industry has allowed Bangladesh to cut poverty by a third, don’t forget that it has created millions of jobs, don’t forget that it has helped put more young girls in school than ever before,” said Gilbert Houngbo, deputy director general of the International Labour Organization in Geneva, which has funneled millions of dollars in the last year to help inspect Bangladeshi factories.
“On the other hand, you can’t do that at the expense of the women’s basic rights: the right to feel safe, to be safe, to have decent work environments,” he said.
In February, a Bangladeshi court charged factory owner Delwar Hossain and his wife with homicide for the deaths in his factory. He pleaded not guilty. The trial has yet to begin.