Dhaka Rana Plaza survivor's search for missing sister

  • 2 May 2013
  • From the section Asia
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"It felt like judgement day," says Halima Akhter, as she remembers the moment when the roof fell in at her clothing factory in the Rana Plaza complex outside Dhaka last week.

"I have seen my grave," she continues as she recounts being trapped under the rubble - before her relief at being rescued 24 hours later.

But her sister was not so lucky.

Hamida was a sewing machine operator in the same New Wave Styles factory, working just feet away.

Vital income

Together Halima says they made clothes for brands like Britain's Primark, Italy's Benetton and Canada's Loblaws, often working 14-hour shifts for about $62 (£40) a month.

"All the time there was pressure to meet deadlines," she says. Other workers have given similar accounts.

But those regular salaries transformed her family's fortunes, with their father earning little from his job as a fruit-seller.

People hold up pictures of missing relatives
The BBC has seen estimates that say up to 1,300 people are still missing

"I cried out Hamida's name after the building came down," she says, "but I couldn't see her."

Halima and her family still have no idea what happened to her.

A week since the disaster, Hamida Akhter is one of many workers still unaccounted for - in addition to more than 400 confirmed dead.

Just how many has become increasingly sensitive, as the fallout from the disaster continues to spread both here and abroad.

Claims from the Bangladeshi military that 149 now remain unaccounted for were greeted with howls of scepticism. NGOs have compiled similar figures suggesting at least 1,000 people still have to be found and the BBC has seen estimates as chigh as 1,300.

The Bangladeshi opposition have seized on the issue, accusing the government of a cover-up.

But "the higher figures have been inflated", says Brig Gen Siddiqul Alam Sikder, who is overseeing the recovery operation. In the chaos, he says many reports of missing people "were counted many times" as families went from place to place trying to find loved ones.

Reeling industry

No one can know until the wreckage is cleared - and the mechanical diggers have yet to penetrate the pancake of concrete in the middle.

With hundreds of factories closed since the disaster because of strikes and protests, the industry is reeling.

"This has given us a bad name," admits the commerce minister Mohammed Quader, who oversees the garment industry.

Garment industry leaders have been meeting buyers, fearing they may start pulling out of Bangladesh and moving to places like Burma.

Ignored warnings

Mr Quader says the government "did not do enough" to discourage the worst practices in the business, as cut-throat operators have cashed in on the garment boom over the last decade.

But there have been plenty of safety warnings before - which critics say were largely ignored. Most recently there was last year's fire at the Tazreen factory, which killed at least 112 workers.

Primark and Loblaws are promising compensation to all families who lost relatives in factories in the Rana Plaza making their garments.

There are also now dozens of amputees who will need long-term help - some people could only be rescued by having their arms or feet cut off because they were trapped by heavy concrete.

But Western retailers with offices here insist they have been trying hard to improve standards - though few are willing to go on the record.

"We check our factories are compliant," says Stefan Strandlund, country manager for UK-based Wilson Imports, which works for several British brands. "You hope that what we are doing can be replicated by everyone else."

Workers in factories are paid an average of $62-69 (£40-45) a month, above the minimum wage of about $39 (£25) a month.

And he says that although that may not sound much to Western ears, "it can put food on the table, a roof over their head and send children to school because of the cheap cost of living."

Since the collapse, he has ordered checks on the structure of factories they use. He says the Bangladeshi government must work harder "to improve the industry" but says retailers also have the power to do more.

"But then", he asks rhetorically, "Is the customer willing to pay more?"

Rana Plaza site
Order sheets with Primark's name now litter the wreckage

The bottom line is still price. And that is Bangladesh's advantage says Mr Quader. "No-one can do it as cheap."

Every day now, Halima's father Habibur Rehman, walks back to the ruined building hoping to find out something about Hamida.

Order sheets with Primark's name now litter the wreckage, with the smell of decaying corpses hanging in the air.

He joins hundreds of other relatives making the same grim search, from hospitals to a school that's serving as a temporary morgue.

Halima remembers chatting to her sister that morning last Wednesday. "She was saying how good the mangoes were this year."

Moments later the building crashed down on their heads.