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Originally published April 26, 2013 at 12:04 AM | Page modified April 26, 2013 at 12:37 PM

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‘End Death Traps’ tour puts face on garment work in Bangladesh

Labor activists in Bangladesh estimate that more than 600 workers have died in factory fires since 2006.

Special to The Seattle Times

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Five months ago, Sumi Abedin jumped out of a third-floor window at the garment factory where she worked. A fire was consuming the ground floor of Tazreen Fashions outside of Dhaka, Bangladesh. She’d tried to escape at the first smell of smoke, but discovered the exit had been padlocked by factory owners.

She jumped after a co-worker pried the bars from the window — but she wasn’t trying to save her life, just her body.

Bangladesh is the second-leading exporter of garments, after China, but the industry has an abysmal fire-safety record. Labor activists in the country estimate that more than 600 workers have died in factory fires since 2006. Abedin, 24, had worked in garment factories for five years and she knew what happened in fires.

“If I stayed in the factory I would be burned to ash,” said Abedin, through a translator, to an audience at the University of Washington this week. “I thought if I jumped at least my family could identify my body on sight.”

Abedin is in Seattle as part of the “End Death Traps” tour, which is visiting 10 U.S. cities this month raising awareness about safety and labor concerns in Bangladesh’s garment industry. They hope to ensure full compensation to Tazreen fire victims, as well as force corporations that manufacture in Bangladesh to sign on to a fire-safety agreement.

“We’re wearing jeans made in Bangladesh,” says Reagan Jackson a community organizer at the local chapter of Making Change at Walmart, a national campaign fighting for better labor practices at the chain. “We’re directly complicit in their supply chain.”

In the charred rubble of Tazreen, where 112 people died, labor activists in Bangladesh found documents showing American chains, including Walmart, were supplied by the factory.

Walmart responded that they had stopped authorizing production at the factory and that “ ... a supplier subcontracted work to this factory without authorization and in direct violation of our policies.”

Abedin is one of more than 3 million garment factory workers — many of them women — in Bangladesh today. Her father is a rickshaw puller and the $60 a month that she was paid at Tazreen (good pay in a country where the minimum wage is more like $37 a month ) helped her family survive.

She broke her arm and leg in the fall and was paid $1,200 for her injuries, money that’s almost entirely gone to medical bills now.

After her presentation at the UW, I followed her outside and asked what she was going to do when she went home — if she would go back to a garment factory.

“I don’t want to,” she said on Tuesday night at the UW, twisting a white plastic bag full of Bangladeshi food someone had bought for her. “I’m really afraid that if I get a job in another factory there will be a fire again.”

It was an eerie prediction. That very night, the Rana Plaza building, which housed several garment factories collapsed in an industrial suburb of Dhaka. By the next morning more than 200 were reported dead and more than 1,000 injured.

It was Abedin’s last day in the Pacific Northwest and the “End Death Trap” tour was headed to the Walmart in Renton. The original plan was to erect a makeshift memorial for the victims of Tazreen against the store’s outside wall. But newly bought boxes of pink and white carnations were included to honor the victims of the Rana Plaza collapse the night before.

Abedin, bundled up in a coat and scarf despite what most Seattleites would have described as a balmy morning, stood in front of a white scroll bearing the names of her dead co-workers.

She had told me that the thing that surprised her most about America was that people that didn’t know her still cared about what happened to her. But as shoppers rattled their carts across the parking lot, many studiously avoiding the display, I wondered.

Then a young family, with a babbling toddler, strolled up asking what had happened.

“I don’t stand for lies or for things like this happening to other people” said Rachel Ziad, anger rising in her face as she heard more details of the memorial. “If I had a way of knowing how to change it I would.”

After this week, she’s not the only one that feels that way.

Sarah Stuteville is a multimedia journalist and co-founder

of The Seattle Globalist, www.seattleglobalist.com, a blog covering Seattle’s international connections. Sarah Stuteville: sarah@seattleglobalist.com. Twitter: @SeaStute

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