Aklima Khanam’s story is a familiar one in Bangladesh. She is among the country’s 4 million workers who stitch together clothes for the world’s multibillion-dollar garment industry. She was also one of the more than 3,000 workers who were in the Rana Plaza factory when it collapsed a year ago.
She didn’t want to enter the building that day. There was a crack. It looked unstable. But a quota of 24,000 pieces needed to be filled. And so, facing verbal and physical abuse from the factory’s bosses, and threats to withhold wages, she and her coworkers hesitatingly went in.
A few hours later, the roof collapsed onto the building, and Khanam was trapped under a machine for 12 hours.
“When I was crushed, I was terrified,” she said. “I didn’t think I was going to live anymore.”
The petite 20-year-old began working in the garment industry when she was 14. Seven days a week, 120 hours a week and for $125 per month, Khanam sewed loops onto pants – the loops many of us likely pull our belts through every day.
Khanam now has a head injury, a chest injury and hip injury. Once the breadwinner in her family, she can no longer work.
“If my mom didn’t work, then we wouldn’t be able to get by at all,” she explained. “My brothers and sisters can’t go to school anymore. We can’t buy as much food as we used to.”
More than 1,200 people died and more than 2,500 were injured in the collapse.
Like so many other workers and their families, Khanam has received no compensation for her loss, either from the government or the companies she made clothes for.
Though the International Labor Organization set up a $40 million fund for the victims of Rana Plaza, only $15 million has been raised so far. Fifteen brands whose clothing and brand labels were found in the factory’s rubble have not contributed to the fund. And those workers who have been compensated received a few hundred dollars.
This lack of action is why Khanam, with the help of the United Students Against Sweatshops, made the over 8,000 mile trek from Dhaka to the United States to share her story.
“If I don’t tell people, then you won’t be able to know what actually happened,” Khanam told America Tonight. “You won’t be able to know what the situation of the Bangladeshi worker is.”
Along her journey, she visited stores like Walmart and Children’s Place, and was struck by the costs. “They make a lot of money and we make so little. I saw a T-shirt that was selling for $55. We don’t even get half of that.”
The Rana Plaza building collapse was the final straw in the poor working conditions Khanam and her coworkers experienced.
“I wasn’t able to sleep well at home. I wasn’t able to eat well. It was just always pressure from work,” Khanam said. “[Buyers] should care about what’s happening with the workers, but all they care about is whether the work is getting done and how quickly it’s getting done.”
Khanam’s been touring the U.S., speaking mainly to students – a demographic that buys much of the cheaper street fashion brands for which she made clothes.
“If we don’t tell them, then how can they understand?” Khanam explained. “They are the ones that are buying the clothes that we’re making for them. They should do something for us as well. Do they want us to die in building collapses or fires? Is that what they want?"