The traffic in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, doesn’t move much; jammed in a bumper to bumper line with horns blaring and a thick river of mud reclaiming the road on either side, there is time to look up at the buildings. While there’s shoddy construction everywhere in third world cities, what Dhaka has more than any other city I have seen is unfinished factory buildings, with steel rods sticking up in the air like hair. These buildings are already occupied with working factories, but the owners are clearly planning to add extra floors, to create more factory space.

When Australia’s garment retailers came to Dhaka and saw these buildings, did they ask whether or not they were safe? Did anyone verify the buildings themselves before placing orders in the factories?  On 24th April this year the Rana Plaza collapsed, killing more than 1,000 people.  The owner had illegally built additional floors to a building meant only for light commercial use; those new floors were leased to garment factories to satisfy the growing demands of Western retailers for cheap products. None of the retailers who placed big orders in Rana Plaza bothered to check whether the building was safe.

Tonnes of debris from the collapsed Rana Plaza has been pushed back from the road, leaving a shallow pit where the building once stood. But amongst the rubble is the story of what was once there: a vast mess of broken concrete and bent steel rods, with pieces of fabric snagged on the edges, fluttering like pennants in the breeze. Look more closely and you can see remnants of ordinary people’s working lives; broken shoes, lunch boxes, laminated instructions in Bengali to be tidy in your work. I pulled out dusty, hand-written attendance books listing first names, with a series of ticks which came to an end before April 24th, the day the building collapsed. Who knows if those people survived? The order sheets and buttons, zips and miniature squares of floral fabric for Benetton samples are scattered through the wreckage – traces of the quality control for everything except the people themselves.

In the hospital closest to Rana Plaza, lie some of the people who paid most dearly for this lack of care. I wonder how many Western retailers currently arguing over workers’ compensation have sent their representatives here? Perhaps they should pay a visit to the orthopaedic ward. More than a month after the disaster the ward is still full of amputees. Young, pretty women in delicate jewellery, still wearing their brightest clothes, sitting or lying on rudimentary beds, each with something terribly wrong or missing: amputated legs and arms. In many cases their limbs were cut off while they were trapped in the rubble. At least in hospital they will be fed; many do not want to go home to begin their new lives.

Later, sharing a salty curry in the tiny home of one garment worker, she asked me a question: if Australians found out how little she was paid, surely they would be happy to pay her and her sisters a little more for their clothes?

She earns $3 a day on a sewing machine.

I could not answer her.

Visit the Four Corners website to watch Sarah’s report “Fashion Victims”.

24 June 2013