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Ever-present danger looms for Bangladeshi workers

Abir Abdullah / EPA

Bangladeshi firemen battle a blaze that broke out at the Kung Keng Textile resort the outskirts of Dhaka on Aug. 26, 2005. The fire was caused by a short-circuit.

Abir Abdullah / EPA

Burned sewing machines sit on the first floor of the Garib & Garib sweater factory after a fire in Gazipur, Bangladesh, on Feb. 26, 2010. Twenty-one garment workers were killed and about 50 injured in the fire. The factory produced sweaters for H&M, among other companies.

Abir Abdullah / EPA

Women cover their noses to avoid the smell of burned bodies as they gather near where bodies are being kept for identification following a devastating fire at the Tazreen Fashions Ltd. garment factory in Savar, outside Dhaka, Bangladesh, on Nov. 25, 2012. The fire killed 112 people, and a government inquiry accused the factory owner of "unpardonable negligence."

In April 2005, at least 64 workers were killed when the Spectrum Garments building collapsed in Bangladesh.

It was the first time photographer Abir Abdullah had covered a building collapse, and the horrific scenes he witnessed over the next week would stay with him. He was left disturbed and unable to eat for several days “because of the smell and seeing the trapped, disfigured faces and bodies of the workers,” Abdullah told NBC News. The scenes moved him to continue to document Bangladesh’s garment industry.

As he would find out, there would be many more agonizing disasters over the next several years.

Abir Abdullah / EPA

Bangladeshi firefighters and rescue workers at the scene of a six-story building collapse on Feb. 25, 2006. The building housed a garment factory, shops and offices in Dhaka's Tejgaon industrial area. At least 18 people were killed and more than 50 seriously injured.

Abir Abdullah / EPA

An injured Bangladeshi worker is carried on a stretcher during a fire at the Ha-Meem Group factory that makes clothes for the Gap, in Savar, Bangladesh, on Dec. 14, 2010. At least 27 people died when a fire broke out on the 9th and 10th floors of the building.

Abir Abdullah / EPA

Relatives mourn beside bodies in front of a hospital gate following a fire at SMART factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on Jan. 26, 2013. At least seven garment workers died and many more were injured in a stampede after a fire broke out in the factory.

Abdullah’s photographs of Bangladesh’s garment industry become especially poignant as the death toll in the recent collapse of the eight-story Rana Plaza now tops 1000, making it the deadliest disaster in the history of the industry. Efforts to keep the cost of production down have contributed to a dangerous work environment, where factory fires and building collapses are commonplace. “Corrupt officials who ignore building codes and greedy businessmen who bypass fire protection” exacerbate the problem, according to Abdullah.

Bangladesh’s garment industry now brings in about $20 billion a year and accounts for 80 percent of the country’s exports. There is tremendous pressure on the Bangladeshi manufacturers to keep labor and production costs low in order to attract global retailers.

Abir Abdullah / EPA

Burned garments are seen after the fire at the SMART garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on Jan. 26, 2013.

Abir Abdullah / EPA

Civilans try to put out a fire at the Sir Denim Ltd. building in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on Nov. 26, 2012. There were no casualties, the fire service reported.

Abir Abdullah / EPA

Rescue workers carry bodies following a devastating fire in the Tazreen Fashions Limited garment factory at Nischintapur, Savar, outside Dhaka, Bangladesh, on Nov. 25, 2012. The factory produced clothing for two Wal-Mart suppliers, as well as one for Sears.

Workers play a pivotal role in the equation, allowing Bangladesh to maintain cheap labor costs. The garment industry employs more than 3 million people. Labor protests demanding safer working conditions and higher salaries sometimes result in a factory temporarily closing, but there are few long-term changes. With few other job opportunities, Bangladeshis return to work at the factories in order to provide a living for their families.

“Though it is exhausting and traumatic to cover building disasters, I think the exploitation of the garment workers need to be documented,” writes Abdullah. He hopes that by drawing attention to the injustices in the system, western buyers and consumers will understand the true cost of their clothing and be moved to effect change. In February, he received an Alexia Foundation grant to continue photographing the deadly cost of cheap clothing. Abdullah says he believes in the power of photography as a “weapon to express your statements against injustice” and dedicates his work to changing the industry.

Abir Abdullah / EPA

The damaged interiors of a garment factory after a clash between the protesting workers and police at Ashulia, Savar, Bangladesh, on June 22, 2010.

Abir Abdullah / EPA

Angry workers and locals protest the deaths of garment workers and demand punishment of the building owner Sohel Rana, in Savar, Dhaka, Bangladesh, on April 30, 2013, after the collapse of Rana Plaza.

Abir Abdullah / EPA

The scene on April 25, 2013, the day after eight-story Rana Plaza building collapsed in Savar, outside Dhaka, Bangladesh, killing more than 900 people.

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