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Raehana Akhter, a 22-year-old mother who worked as a quality control officer for about $2 a day, was in the Rana Plaza garment factory building that collapsed in Bangladesh. ‘It was like stepping into an elevator [shaft]. I felt this feeling in my stomach, and then everything fell.’ (AMIRUL RAJIV FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Raehana Akhter, a 22-year-old mother who worked as a quality control officer for about $2 a day, was in the Rana Plaza garment factory building that collapsed in Bangladesh. ‘It was like stepping into an elevator [shaft]. I felt this feeling in my stomach, and then everything fell.’ (AMIRUL RAJIV FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Spinning tragedy: The true cost of a T-shirt Add to ...

At about 8:30 a.m. one morning in April, a generator rumbled to life at Rana Plaza – rattling the building, as it always did when it started.

Work had just begun at the welter of garment factories when the power went out. So a manager on the seventh floor, home to the New Wave Style factory, was quick to stand up as the lights went back on and announce that the building was safe. Everyone should continue doing their jobs.

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But this time, Rana Plaza didn’t stop shaking.

“He died on the spot as he was announcing that we should keep working,” Raehana Akhter recalls. Then she fell, too. “It was like stepping into an elevator [shaft]. I felt this feeling in my stomach, and then everything fell.”

When she landed, Ms. Akhter, a 22-year-old mother who worked as a quality control officer for about $2 a day, was in complete darkness, with her left leg trapped under shattered cement.

“The ceiling was just here,” she says, putting her hand about 30 centimetres above her face. “I felt like this would be my little grave.”

The building did become a grave – for 1,129 people. Its collapse was the world’s worst industrial accident in almost three decades.

Fatal accidents in the garment-trade belt around Dhaka have become all too regular.

The Rana Plaza deaths added to a toll of 117 who died in a November, 2012, fire at Tazreen Fashions. And that disaster was echoed by another fire this week, which claimed 10 lives at the Aswad Composite Mills factory.

But Rana Plaza had a particular resonance in Canada. Months after the building’s collapse, brightly coloured clothing with Joe Fresh labels – the signature cheap-chic Loblaw brand – could still be found amid the broken bricks and twisted rebar at the site.

Many of those who died in Rana Plaza were producing Joe Fresh clothing as the building started to shake. The last shipment to leave New Wave Styles was on April 22: 725 cartons of printed shorts bound for North America. And it was just the most recent of at least 44 major shipments from New Wave Style to Loblaw in the 10 months preceding the disaster.

The collapse of Rana Plaza spotlighted the potentially tragic costs of the cheap T-shirt – now a staple of fast fashion – and sparked debate about just how much responsibility retailers should have for the supply chain that moves product onto their shelves.

As garment factories have pushed into new markets in search of ever-cheaper labour, the apparel industry has become perhaps the ultimate symbol of two decades of globalization. Once a cornerstone of Canadian industry on Spadina Ave. in Toronto and Chabanel St. in Montreal, the manufacturing of clothing now ties together Western consumers and distant Asian workers in a cycle driven by trends and budgets that change with the seasons. No product better represents how our economy has been altered than the global tee, the fashion basic that’s sold for miraculously cheap prices, sometimes just $5.

As The Globe and Mail found during more than two months tracking such T-shirts – from the cotton fields of China to the gleaming offices of Hong Kong and Singapore, to factories in Cambodia and Bangladesh and back to Canadian stores – supply chains are increasingly fragmented. Production leapfrogs from city to city. Middlemen outsource to other middlemen. Governments make bold claims but few checks on safety. And the consumer knows little about the long and tortuous path journey of that T-shirt to the store – only that it has become far more affordable than it ever used to be.

Yet as the ties between countries have become stronger, accountability has become a loose thread. The Globe’s investigation shows how companies such as Loblaw place their orders through middlemen, who in turn source work to a network of far-flung factories. The retailer whose shelves are stocked with cheap T-shirts in many cases does not know where in the world it or its materials is going to be produced when an order is placed. Inspecting buildings and working conditions has been beyond the retailer’s scope.

Shihezi, China

Much of the clothing worn by Westerners starts life in South and Central Asia – most frequently in the cotton fields of China.

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