When a fire engulfed the Tazreen Fashions garment factory in late November, Sumi Abedin was resigned to die. Defying orders from floor bosses to stay at her sewing machine after word got around that a blaze was spreading down below, she and her co-workers ran to the two "women's" exits, only to find them padlocked. Another "male" stairwell was choked with smoke and bodies, forcing her to retreat by the light of a cell phone. Amid the screams and confusion, a ventilation shaft offered a way out: a three-story fall to the ground, one that could also be fatal. "I did not jump to save my life; I jumped to save my body," says the 24-year-old, hoping her family could identify her remains.
Five months after the deadliest fire in Bangladesh's history, Sumi stands on a Washington, D.C. street corner at rush hour. Her purple salwar kameez strikes a sharp contrast with the drab office buildings and business suits that shuffle past her. She walks with a limp, the result of broken leg sustained from the fall. (A friend who jumped with her was less fortunate; he died on impact, becoming one of the 112 who perished.) But her purpose is unfaltering: to secure compensation for injured workers and the families of those killed in the fire, and to convince more big box retailers to agree to a legally-binding safety agreement that would help prevent factory fires that have killed an average of 100 workers a year since 2006. "I've come to America to tell people that we deserve safe working place, that factories in Bangladesh are no safer for workers than before," says Sumi.