Minu Akhter has not slept properly for a year. Every time there is a noise, she wakes up fearing the roof will cave in. She cannot go to the upper floors of a building in case the staircase gives way.
Since the collapse of Rana Plaza garment factory complex just outside the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka, the 23-year-old has struggled to control her emotions. Every time she thinks of her boyfriend, tears roll down her cheeks.
When the nine-story building failed almost 12 months ago, Akhter was cutting clothing to make trousers at the doomed Phantom Apparels factory, which had an order from an Italian retailer, she remembers.
On that morning, April 24, her boyfriend of five years, Shahin, was on the other side of the aisle on the fourth floor of the complex. They smiled as they started the day’s grueling 11-hour shift.
“Suddenly there was a loud noise and smoke shrouded our floor. All my colleagues were running for safety. In that moment I saw Shahin waiting for me so that we would run for safety together,” she said.
Almost two weeks later, as she lay in a hospital bed recovering from a fractured skull and a damaged ear, Akhter heard that Shahin’s body had been pulled from the twisted wreckage.
He was one of the 1,138 people killed. Another 2,000 people were injured.
“For days I could not believe he had died. We had so many plans. We had even gone to a marriage register’s office to get married, only to decide we should wait for our families’ consent,” she said.
She was lucky to survive. Rescuers dragged her out of the rubble by tying a rope to her legs. She spent about 50 hours lying among bodies under the pan-caked floors of the building.
As Bangladesh and the world marks one year since the country’s worst industrial disaster, some things have changed for the better in the industry, but the psychological wounds inflicted on survivors remain fresh.
In a community room meters from the flattened building site where Rana Plaza once stood, Akhter attends a counselling group run by therapists.
She is one among 20 victims being treated for grief and insecurity by the therapists hired by the International Labour Organization (ILO) and British charity ActionAid. “It’s the fourth batch of Rana Plaza victims we’re counselling. And almost every one we’ve talked to suffers from varying degree of trauma,” lead therapist Obaidul Islam Munna said.
“Most can’t sleep in the night. They can’t stand small noise. One girl even passed out the moment we used a loudspeaker. Many suffer from memory loss and smell bodies or see dead workers lying next to them. Some simply can’t enter a multi-storied building,” Munna said.
Outside in the garment factories, some of the cheapest and most productive in the world, the tragedy of Rana Plaza has led to a sustained focus on improving working conditions that campaigners had decried for years.
The government has hiked minimum wages for the 4 million mostly women workers in the sector by 77 percent to US$68 a month and eased laws enabling the formation of trade unions.
It has upgraded its moribund factory inspection agency and announced the hiring of at least 200 new inspectors to try to prevent another major collapse or deadly fires which regularly kill workers.
Trade union leader Baharine Sultan said the improvements were due to intense international pressure from labor groups, the global media and Western retailers that have long benefitted from Bangladesh’s cheap labor.