A mother, right, was overcome with emotion on Sunday after identifying the body of her daughter, who died in the collapse of a building containing garment factories. The final death toll is not in sight.

Wong Maye-E • Associated Press ,

Fate of one trapped worker shines light on millions in the factories

  • Article by: JIM YARDLEY
  • New York Times
  • May 5, 2013 - 8:37 PM

The rescuers discovered her by a faint sound. They had spent four days crawling through the wreckage of Rana Plaza, tons of concrete and steel pressing down, saving hundreds of people. Now only the dead remained. Except for a lone woman, a garment worker.

She was trapped behind a fallen pillar, in a suffocating crevice maybe 2 feet high. First, the rescuers could see only her fingertips pressing through a tiny opening. After hours spent chipping a small hole, they could see her face. Her name was Shaheena. She was 32. She begged to see her young son.

The story of Shaheena, involving a heroic if ultimately doomed rescue operation, offered the last bit of hope of finding anyone alive in the collapsed building. For hours on April 28, as TV reporters broadcast updates, rescuing Shaheena became a national priority. She would be trapped for more than 100 hours before she died.

Her plight attracted so much attention because of the horror of the building collapse, with a death toll that by Sunday had exceeded 600; the drama of the long rescue effort; and the human desire to find a sliver of redemption.

But the attention was also an anomaly: There are easily more than 2.5 million women working in the garment industry whose lives usually attract scant notice, even though they are the workhorses of the national economy.

For women like Shaheena, the garment industry has been a source of empowerment as well as exploitation. Before, few rural women worked outside the fields in Bangladesh. Many, like Shaheena, are still not given a surname at birth. Now the industry has given many women a first step out of rural distress, with some becoming outspoken labor leaders or plant managers.

But more often, a factory job has meant a daily struggle to subsist on low wages consumed by rising rents and living expenses.

The day before Rana Plaza collapsed April 24, the five factories inside the building were temporarily closed when cracks were discovered. But relatives say Shaheena insisted on returning to work.

“If I don’t go to work tomorrow, I’ll be absent, and I will not get paid for the day,” Shaheena said that afternoon, according to her sister, Jesmine Akhtar. “They may delay my month’s wages. I need to pay the rent. I need to buy milk for my son.”

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