Bangladesh Says Death Toll From Factory Collapse Tops 400
By Arun Devnath – May 1, 2013 8:16 AM ET
Bangladesh officials said the death toll from the factory complex that collapsed last week rose to at least 403, and the European Union warned of trade sanctions in the wake of the nation’s biggest industrial disaster.
Rescue efforts are continuing “but it is very unlikely that we will find any more survivors,” said Mir Rabbi, a duty officer at the control room supervising the salvage effort. While rescuers have pulled 2,437 people alive from the rubble, at least 149 people are still missing, Rabbi said.
The collapse of the building in Savar on April 24 is at least the third reported industrial accident in the South Asian nation since November, when 112 people died in a fire at a workshop that was producing clothes for companies including Wal- Mart Stores Inc. (WMT) A group of international retailers met unions and non-government organizations in Germany this week to discuss forming an alliance on improving factory standards.
Bangladesh’s High Court yesterday ordered officials to seize assets belonging to Sohel Rana, owner of the eight-story Rana Plaza and member of the ruling Awami League political party’s youth wing, as well as those of four owners of garment factories in the complex. The EU said it’s considering action under its trade rules to encourage changes in the nation’s supply-chain operations.
Outraged by the tragedy, tens of thousands of people today flooded the streets of Dhaka to mark May Day, bringing traffic to a halt in parts of the city. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed visited the disaster site on April 29. Hundreds of relatives are still at the location waiting to learn the fate of family members.
“The sheer scale of this disaster and the alleged criminality around the building’s construction is finally becoming clear to the world,” EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht and Catherine Ashton, high representative for foreign affairs, said in a joint statement yesterday. To incentivize responsible management of supply chains, the EU is considering action through its Generalized System of Preferences program, which gives Bangladesh duty- and quota-free access to its market, he said.
Building owner Rana, 38, was flown to Dhaka after being arrested in the western border town of Benapole, from where he planned to flee into India, Jahangir Kabir Nanak, state minister for local government, told cheering relatives of victims at the disaster site April 28. Police have arrested executives of four apparel makers housed in the building.
After cracks were found in the building on April 23, Rana forced workers to return to their posts and said it was safe as it was being checked by engineers, according to Mokhlesur Rahman, director general of the Rapid Action Battalion, an elite law-enforcement agency.
Rana’s wife and father were among the people arrested in connection with the collapsed building. The police have 15 days to interrogate Rana, according to a court order issued April 29. Anisur Rahman, chairman of Ether Tex, one of the five companies housed in Rana Plaza, turned himself in on April 28.
Savar is located 24 kilometers (15 miles) northwest of Dhaka. About 300 factories employing as many as 500,000 people in the industrial belt of Ashulia, about 10 kilometers east of Savar, suspended production yesterday after briefly resuming operations in the morning because of a walkout by employees calling for a safe work environment, Atiqul Islam, president of Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, said by telephone.
In another industrial belt, Gazipur, factories resumed production and are operating smoothly, Munibur Rahman, director of Gazipur Industrial Police, said by telephone.
Rana’s permit to construct the building, where clothes were made for brands owned by Loblaw Cos. (L) and Associated British Foods Plc (ABF), was from the Savar Municipal Corp., a local body that has lower building standards, and not Dhaka’s development authority, said Sheikh Mannan, a planning member of Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakkha, Dhaka’s development authority.
About half of Bangladesh’s garment factories don’t meet legal work-safety standards, said Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, a non- governmental organization. A factory collapse in 2005 killed 64 and injured 80 people, according to the Clean Clothes Campaign, which seeks to improve working conditions in the garment and sportswear industries.
Bangladesh’s labor law requires safety measures such as fire extinguishers and easily accessible exits at factories. The government has decided to constitute a panel to identify garment factories in the country at risk of collapse, cabinet secretary Hossain Bhuiyan told reporters on April 29.
At an April 29 meeting held in Eschborn, near Frankfurt, retailers, non-governmental organizations and unions sought to agree a document supporting Bangladesh’s national action plan and providing for a supplier assessment of fire and building risk, said Peter McAllister, a director of Ethical Trade Initiative, who attended. The agreement, which also would put in place remediation programs so buildings can be made safe to work in, will be published May 15 “and there will be a strong call for as many brands as we can, who source in Bangladesh, to get behind that,” McAllister said.
Loblaw’s Joe Fresh clothing label and the Primark division of London-based Associated British Foods, which said that their suppliers made garments at the collapsed factory, both vowed to help improve working conditions in Bangladesh. Both retailers also said on April 29 they would pay an unspecified amount of compensation to the families of victims.
Matalan Ltd., a U.K. budget retailer, said in an e-mailed statement yesterday that it wasn’t using suppliers based in the building, though it’s working with the Bangladeshi industry association to offer financial and other support to people affected by the collapse.
Surging wages and inflation in China, the largest apparel supplier, have prompted retailers such as Bentonville, Arkansas- based Wal-Mart and Hoffman Estates, Illinois-based Sears Holdings Corp. (SHLD) to shift production to Bangladesh. In response, an $18 billion manufacturing industry has sprung up, marred by plants operated in buildings with poor electrical wiring, an insufficient number of exits and little firefighting equipment.
Textiles contribute more than 10 percent of Bangladesh’s gross domestic product and about 80 percent of the nation’s exports, mainly to the U.S. and the European Union, according to the manufacturers’ association.
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