'I am going through a cyclone of destruction': A Rana Plaza survivor on life under lockdown

by Naimul Karim | @naimonthefield | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Friday, 24 April 2020 12:00 GMT

Garments workers take shelter under a banner as it starts to rain, as they block a road demanding their due wages during the lockdown amid concerns over the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Dhaka, Bangladesh, April 15, 2020. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

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"The financial support we received after the Rana Plaza disaster is nothing compared to the pain we have been through and are still going through.”

This story is part of a series examining how coronavirus lockdowns are affecting vulnerable people around the world. 

By Naimul Karim

DHAKA, April 24 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - When Nilufar Yasmin started working at a garment factory in February, she felt at ease for the first time in seven years.

A survivor of the Rana Plaza collapse - which killed 1,131 garment workers in Bangladesh in April 2013 - Yasmin suffered severe back injuries that kept her bedridden for two years and struggled with trauma when she returned to the industry in 2016.

This year, she finally found a seamstress position at a small factory that felt like a good fit. But with Western buyers cancelling and suspending orders worth at least $3 billion due to the impact of the coronavirus, her factory shut last month.

The mother-of-two is now unable to find another job, running out of food, and ashamed to ask for help from her landlord.

This is her story:

"I think it was 9:50 am on April 24 (in 2013) when the Rana Plaza building started crashing down. At first there was a huge noise and then all of a sudden the ceiling started to fall.

I don't recall what happened inside but I know I was rescued 24 hours later with severe injuries to my head and my backbone.

I was in bed for two years because of the injury to my backbone. I attempted to join a big garment factory again in 2016. But as soon as I arrived, my hands started to shiver.

I felt like the building was going to fall and I started shouting. My line manager asked me to keep quiet and work, but I couldn't. I kept shouting until they let me out of the factory.

After that, I tried working in several factories. It was the same in each of them. My work was good, but as soon as they gave me targets and I had to speed up, my head would start to hurt.

It's difficult to explain. The noise of the machines would trigger something in my head. After 10 to 15 days, I would be forced to quit ... and need a week's rest to recover mentally.

So, I left the garment sector after a year and started working as a maid in different homes. This was something that I was ashamed about, but there was nothing else that I could do.

Working as a maid took a toll on my body. Last June, my back started to hurt a lot and I wasn't able to work for 8 months.

Thankfully after that break, I got a chance in to work in a small garment factory in February. It depends upon subcontracts from big factories.

For the first time in seven years, I felt comfortable while making clothes.

Maybe it was because this wasn't a big factory. But it had to close down a month after I joined because of the coronavirus. Our owner told us that they weren't getting any more orders.

Life has been extremely difficult for me since the factory closed down. I can't even go back to working in homes because no one is accepting maids due to the fear of the virus.

My landlord gave me some rice and potatoes and that's what I have been living on since March. The food is about to run out, and I don't know what to do after that.

I am too ashamed to ask my landlord for help again.

The financial support that we received from different places after the Rana Plaza disaster is nothing compared to the pain that we have been through and are still going through.

I don't think that the garment sector has become friendlier to workers over the years. Those I speak to say that while their income has increased, the work pressure has nearly doubled.

Today, I can't work in a big garment factory because of the accident. Who is going to take responsibility for that? 

Sometimes I still dream about the first few years I was working in a garment factory. I used to earn 10,000 taka ($118) per month at times and could easily send enough money home.

Now it's like I am going through a cyclone of destruction."

Related stories:

Bangladesh threatens legal action as thousands of garment workers go unpaid

Thousands of Bangladeshi garment workers ordered home as factories stay closed

Bangladesh urged to stop worker abuse in garment industry

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(Reporting by Naimul Karim @Naimonthefield; Editing by Kieran Guilbert and Belinda Goldsmith. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)