After two and a half days among rubble, Reba Sikder lost track of whether it was day or night, enumerating her hours by the number of silenced screams around her.
On April 24, 2013, Sikder became victim to the collapse of Rana Plaza, a commercial building outside Dhaka, Bangladesh, which housed the garment factory Ether Tex. One thousand one hundred and thirty-four people died that day.
The 19-year-old survivor, along with labor rights activist Kalpona Akter, visited the University of Wisconsin-Madison Thursday as part of a nation-wide tour organized by the United Students Against Sweatshops group and hosted by the campus chapter of the Student Labor Action Coalition.
Sikder and Akter spoke to UW-Madison campus members in an effort to raise awareness of the widespread flawed working conditions in Bangladeshi factories. In their talk, they encouraged students to take action by urging the university to sign the Bangladesh Safety Accord, which would require companies to comply with a code of conduct ensuring workers’ rights and safety.
“We came here to connect [students to workers] and let [students] know that they have a role and their role is very important, very vital to having a safe working place for our workers,” Akter said.
Sikder offered an account of her experience in the collapsed factory as part of the presentation, communicating to the audience with Akter as her translator.
Despite visible cracks in the infrastructure of the building and a previous evacuation, Sikder and her colleagues entered Rana Plaza earlier that April afternoon upon threats from management to withhold their pay, she said.
Before long, the power went out and a generator kicked in.
“As soon as they started the generator, I heard a sound–boom–and saw everything start collapsing,” she recalled.
As the building came down, Sidker and her co-workers found themselves stuck among the wreckage, many badly injured. She was trapped next to a bleeding co-worker.
“My whole body was becoming wet because all of the blood was coming from him and he was pushing me and asking for help,” she said. “He was crying for water and I said, ‘Brother, I cannot help you because I have been stuck under the machine as well.’ Screaming and crying, he died after a few minutes.”
Many of those still alive did all they could to survive, with some resorting to drinking blood and urine to stay hydrated. The last person rescued had spent 17 days in the debris, according to Akter.
Sidker, who wants to return to her village and work as a seamstress, said it is important for students to understand the power they have to make a difference.
“I saw many of co-workers and many people die. I left them behind,” she said. “I don’t want anyone dying like my colleagues died, like those people who died in that building. I want to see a safe working place for all of the workers.”