DHAKA, Bangladesh (USA TODAY)- Just two more months, the daughter promised her mother by telephone, then she'd be home for good.
Making shirts in this packed metropolis of 12 million people, Sheuli Akhter, 20, made decent money by the impoverished standards of rural Bangladesh. But she missed the family benefiting from the wages of her hard work.
Her mother, Ranjana, was found recently sobbing over the rubble of the Rana Plaza factory where her daughter worked, days after the eight-story complex collapsed and killed 1,127 workers. Viewing dozens of corpses a day, Ranjana, 35, still hoped her daughter had somehow survived and would join her for the 10-hour bus journey back to their village.
The victims retrieved daily from the debris were crushed and unrecognizable in the South Asian heat.
"I am looking for her body, but they are all decomposed now. It's getting harder to identify," said Ranjana, tears falling from her eyes.
The scale of the mismanagement and breadth of the human tragedies in Bangladesh powerfully illustrated to the world in one instant what years of abuse, inhumane conditions and unthinkable danger could not: The garment workers in third-world countries take enormous risks and desperate measures to earn a living in Bangladeshi-owned companies that produce clothing for Western retailers.
At the end of this global production line stand millions of American shoppers whose favorite companies and brands - think Benetton, The Children's Place, Gap, J.C. Penney, Mango, Target and Sears - use Bangladesh as a launching pad for the goods consumers crave.
Clothing manufacturers in North America and Europe - operating with scant supervision of their operations - have made Bangladesh the second-largest exporter of clothes in the world. The enormity of this tragedy is already beginning to change the country's free-for-all business climate.
Many international retailers rushed this week to embrace a labor-backed factory safety proposal after the collapse April 24, the world's deadliest industrial accident since India's Bhopal chemical plant disaster took 2,260 lives in 1984. More than 30 retail chains including H&M, the largest clothing producer in Bangladesh, agreed to sign onto the proposal, which requires public disclosure of factory inspections and company-paid renovations when problems are found.
But talks broke down between the labor coalition IndustriALL and trade groups representing U.S. retailers like the Gap over language that might make stores liable for conditions in Bangladeshi factories while requiring union-style management restrictions. The retail groups said they could improve worker safety by conducting more rigorous inspections of their factories and released details of the plans Wednesday.
These vows of reform and promises of a better way have been met with stoic skepticism in the streets of Dhaka.
OVERSIGHT NOTORIOUSLY WEAK
A major pillar of Bangladesh's economy, the garment industry employs roughly 4 million people. Only China exports more clothing than Bangladesh, which has 5,000 factories of varying sizes producing for other major chains.
These global brands thrive in a place where the average worker earns the equivalent of 24 cents an hour, according to the Worker Rights Consortium, a worker advocacy group that also criticized U.S. retailers for failing to sign onto the proposed reforms. The wage for garment workers is much higher - sometimes four times that - which is why so many people are drawn to the industry.
Many of the garment operations have sprung up in the past decade in buildings sometimes refurbished in a hurry to capture customers. Western retailers contract with myriad unconnected workshops to get fabric and buttons and fasteners needed for their products. Though many importers require inspectors to check on working conditions, they do not oversee all aspects of building safety. Those laws are the authority of the government, which works hand-in-hand with the industry.
In fact, a consortium of Bangladesh factory owners is also a lobbying group that consults with the government on working conditions and safety matters. Government oversight is notoriously weak.
Rana Plaza was showing structural cracks before the collapse. They prompted some businesses to move out of the building, but that wasn't enough for the factory to shut down. The owner was captured trying to flee across the Indian border and is under arrest on charges that he built illegal additional floors on a building not designed for manufacturing. Factory management hasn't confirmed how many employees were present that fateful morning.
Since 2005, at least 1,800 garment workers have been killed in factory fires and building collapses in Bangladesh, according to the advocacy group International Labor Rights Forum. That includes the toll from Rana Plaza. Hundreds of factories were shut down due to worker protests after the collapse, and only Friday are garment makers reopening them.
Despite this carnage, the retail industry has found a needy home in Bangladesh, a country facing daunting challenges. A nation of 140 million mostly Muslim people, it's home to regular political strife and overwhelming poverty. Sixty million Bangladeshis are classified as "very poor," and per capita income is $1,700 a year.
Its garment firms, which make up 80% of total exports, face pressure from foreign buyers to retain the nation's chief selling point: the cheapest place to make clothes. Anywhere. The business is so central to its economy that billboards inside Dhaka Airport feature ads for zipper and denim manufacturers.
'HELPLESS WITHOUT THE GARMENT SECTOR'
The disaster highlights the perilous choice for Bangladeshis in the garment sector, 80% of them women who work as seamstresses and support entire families.
Sheuli's father died four years ago. Her mother earns little as a housemaid in the forested countryside of Bagerhat, south of Dhaka. This work is one of the few employment options for women in Bangladesh.
"I forbade her from coming to Dhaka, but she insisted she could earn more there," said Ranjana, whose daughter's monthly salary of $140 maintained the whole family and kept her younger brother, 14, in school. "I need financial help from the government. I want my son to complete his study. I'll beg if I have to."
Some survivors say the jobs are no longer worth it.
"I will never work in a garment factory again, and never again in a multistory building," said Asma Akhter, 22, who lay trapped in the rubble for three days before rescue.
After the Tazreen fire in November, in which 117 people died in a factory making T-shirts and jackets, "the government didn't take any steps to prevent this type of incident. Another disaster like this can still happen," she said.
"The garment factory owners sell the products abroad at a high price, but we get low wages. This can't be justified," said Asma, who hopes her secondary school education, unusual among her colleagues, will aid her job hunt.
Others see if differently.
Seamstress Asma Akhter, 25, who is no relation to the woman of the same name above, says she would be "helpless" without the garment sector.
"I don't know what I could do," she says. "If you want to survive you have to work."
Asma came to Dhaka in 2000 at age 12 to start work in a clothes factory. Divorced, she supports her mother and two sons in her home village, which she visits twice a year, and dreams of returning there once the boys graduate and find jobs.
"I want them to have the education I didn't," she says. "I don't want them to work in the garment business."
Waiter Mohammad Mintu, 38, who lives nearby and helped 25 people escape, hopes his two children, 6 and 13, won't have to work in the garment sector. He refuses to let his wife work in a factory despite his modest monthly income of $64.
The Rana Plaza collapse roared "like a fighter jet," he says. "I am sad I could not rescue more."
"There must be changes now, better safety measures," he says, "but I'm not confident that will happen, as the owners care only about their own interests."
WHERE CHANGE IS HAPPENING
Tidy that passageway, Rhm Shiblee Shirazy ordered his workers as they cut rolls of white padding for winter jackets to be shipped to Turkey.
"Before it was all blocked here," he sighs about the clutter in the halls of his factory.
A fire that killed eight people this month inside a garment factory down the road in Dhaka's Mirpur area lends urgency to his fire safety drive at Amco Fashions, a 26-year-old company Shiblee and his father-in-law recently took over. Until they relocate in 18 months to a new facility, Shiblee is trying to raise standards inside the run-down premises by applying concepts learned during eight years in Australia. Next up: red exit markings on every aisle floor.
At daily 8 a.m. meetings begun last month, managers stress "safety first" to the 600 employees, he says. "The workers are uneducated. They need motivation and monitoring and need to take responsibility themselves."
Some of the workers say the new measures have calmed their fear of fire. Foreign companies must get involved if things are to truly change, Shiblee says.
"The buyers must be more demanding of the producer, telling them where to modify this or that section," Shiblee says. Initiatives such as extra inspectors are welcome, but they may accept "incentives" to write good reports, just as some Bangladeshi middle-men may hide the full picture from their foreign clients, he says.
The Al-Muslim Group, a large garment maker in the same suburb as Rana Plaza, makes clothes for companies worldwide, including The Children's Place, and meets TCP's Code of Conduct, says Syed Mohammed Ferdous, assistant general manager of HR and Compliance.
"They have visited our factories many times. We say, 'If you have problems, come and show us,' " he says.
The company rushed 395 employees, members of fire safety and rescue teams established after the Tazreen fire, to rescue Rana survivors, he says. Though confident in the company's safety measures, "revolutionary change is needed" across the industry, Syed says. "We don't want to see such scenes anymore."
He hopes the retail companies that buy their goods agree to spend more to make that change happen. "U.S. consumers get cheap labor costs in Bangladesh. They can spend some more money for the betterment of humans," Syed says.
'STOP THE KILLING'
Nothing says world retailers have to stay in Bangladesh.
International companies must contend with a volatile political environment of frequent street agitation and confrontation. Regular strikes called by opposition parties wielding street power hamper production.
"We must stop the killing," said Nazmar Akter, president of Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation and general-secretary of the Awaj Foundation of workers groups.
"It's a global business. Everybody has the responsibility. Workers in Bangladesh are unsafe, hungry, with bad living and working conditions. We are human. We want respect and dignity; that's our demand," Akter says.
Contributing: Jayne O'Donnell from McLean, Va.