Updated: June 9, 2013 6:36AM
The rescue phase of the collapsed Bangladeshi factory building came to a heartbreaking end Sunday when the last known survivor died of smoke inhalation.
Shaheena, trapped under the rubble of her workplace, was perhaps half an hour from being freed from her 100-hour ordeal. But sparks from a saw cutting through the rebar set fire to scattered shirts and bolts of cloth, killing her and a rescue worker.
With a death toll of 675 and counting, the Rana Plaza is now considered the deadliest accident in the garment industry’s history.
“Accident” in this case is a euphemism. The Rana Plaza originally was designed as a five-story building for shops and offices, but its owners illegally added three floors for garment factories and allowed the installation of heavy equipment that the building was not designed to support.
When cracks began appearing in the structure, engineers recommended that it be shut down. The owners elected to keep it open and Shaheena, 32, who goes by one name, showed up. She had to. Her pay of barely $100 a month was the sole support of herself and her son.
Affordable First World clothes depend on cheap Third World laborers working in hazardous conditions. A fire last November at another Bangladeshi factory killed 112.
Corruption and desperation undercut regulation, and industry “self-regulation” often appears to be no regulation. But, as buyers showed with “fair trade” coffee, the immense purchasing power of the American consumer can force beneficial changes in the marketplace. The nonprofit Fair Trade USA offers a special label to companies that ensure that their overseas workers are fairly paid, work in safe conditions and have an outlet for their grievances.
Look for the label. Selling “ethically made” clothes is not a lot to ask of U.S. retailers. The fate of exploited workers like Shaheena may seem half a world away, but in fact it’s as close as the shirt on your back.
Dale Mcfeatters is an editorial writer for USA Today.