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Demands for Action as Bangladesh Death Toll Mounts

Efforts to find survivors continued through Monday as officials said 386 people have been declared dead and about 900 were still counted as missing.

Relatives of missing garment workers demand the bodies of their relatives after an eight-storey building collapsed in Savar, on the outskirts of Dhaka.

Frustration and anger at the cause of last week’s building collapse in Savar, Bangladesh, that plunged 3,000 apparel workers into a trap of cement and steel continued to mount at the scene and around the world Monday.

This story first appeared in the April 30, 2013 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Efforts to find survivors continued through Monday as officials said 386 people have been declared dead and about 900 were still counted as missing. An estimated 2,370 have been rescued, but authorities said it was unlikely that there would be any more survivors found. The collapse of the building is the worst tragedy in the history of Bangladesh’s apparel industry, which has been rocked over the last five months by a series of fires and other disasters that have stirred demands worldwide for action to ensure greater worker safety.

An army spokesman at the site told local newspapers, “We are giving the highest priority to saving people, but there is little hope of finding anyone alive.”

Rescue teams started using heavy equipment Sunday evening to cut through the slabs of cement, causing relatives to gather in growing protest at the site. The heavy equipment will dislodge cement and leave no chance of survival, the workers complained. The frantic rescue efforts were exacerbated when cutting equipment caused a fire in the debris at the site, as rescue teams scrambled to reach a woman who was apparently lost in the blaze, a fire official said.

Protests continued to break out in other parts of Dhaka on Monday. Although garment factories in

Bangladesh were declared open on Monday after a two-day shutdown announced by the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association for Saturday and Sunday, work at many factories came to a halt by midmorning Monday as workers were exhorted to stop work.

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“The protests have led to many factory workers shutting down their units in Ashulia, Ghazipur, Sav and other areas,” a BGMEA official told WWD. “The crowds of workers were more than 10,000 in some areas.”

The police deployed tear gas to disperse the mobs that have grown increasingly violent. Police officials in Dhaka said factories had been attacked Monday morning, while more than 150 vehicles were vandalized and major highways were blocked.

Protestors — who were earlier calling for the arrest of Sohel Rana, the owner of the building that collapsed, Rana Plaza, who was apprehended on Sunday — are now demanding the death penalty for him. Rana, who is said to be a leader of the youth wing of the ruling Awami League party, appeared in court, and an order was given for police to have 15 days to interrogate him on charges of negligence, illegal construction and forcing employees to work. Rana’s father was also arrested under a similar charge.

The tragedy has again stirred demands for action on the part of Western countries and retailers that source from Bangladesh.

Charles Kernaghan, director of the Institute for Global Labor and Human Rights, said, “It is long overdue that the United States, Canada, the European Union, Australia and other countries stop relying upon so-called ‘corporate codes of conduct’ that are never enforced. Workers must be guaranteed their legal right to organize independent unions, to bargain collectively and to have a contract that includes decent working conditions and a prohibition of child labor. Until workers are afforded their legal labor rights, nothing will change, and the list of tragedies will continue to grow.”

Kernaghan said Bangladesh apparel “should be denied duty-free access to the European Union, U.S., Canada and other countries until the health and safety of Bangladesh’s workers are guaranteed and the workers’ legal rights are finally enforced.”

A spokeswoman for the U.S. Trade Representative said, “The administration has been concerned about the worker rights situation in Bangladesh for some time, including issues related to worker safety, and has conveyed those concerns on numerous occasions to the highest levels of the government of Bangladesh.”

She said USTR reached a conclusion in January that “too little had been done to address worker rights concerns in Bangladesh,” prompting the agency to consider withdrawal, suspension or limitation of Bangladesh’s benefits under the Generalized System of Preferences program. The AFL-CIO has petitioned against renewing the benefits to Bangladesh, citing the fire at Tazreen Fashions in November that killed 112 people and numerous alleged incidents of violations of workers’ rights to bargain collectively and organize a union.

The USTR spokeswoman said its GSP subcommittee is now examining all the testimony from a March 28 hearing and will reveal the next steps in the GSP review of Bangladesh by the end of June. (For more on the issue of factory safety, see page 8.)

It has been alleged that Rana Plaza was built illegally on a swamp area, leading to unstable construction, and without proper building permits. Although cracks were seen in the building last Tuesday, workers at the five factories in the building — New Wave Bottoms, Phantom Apparels, Phantom Tac, Ether Tex and New Wave Style — were not informed, and went in to work on Wednesday.

Bazius Samad, owner of the New Wave facility, and Aminul Islam, owner of Phantom Apparels, have also been arrested for forcing more than 3,000 workers to enter the factories last Wednesday. Two engineers of the Savar municipality have also been arrested, accused of accepting bribes from Rana Plaza’s owner to allow him to illegally build four additional floors on top of the four for which there was a permit.

Demands of protestors include the resignation of home minister Muhiuddin Khan Alamgir, with claims that Bangladesh refused offers for help from international agencies and other countries when the collapse occurred.

A visit by prime minister Sheikh Hasina, her first after the incident occurred, to both the site and the Enam hospital appeared to have lifted the morale of the rescue teams. Hasina appealed to the government opposition parties not to go forward with the nationwide shutdown they have called for on Thursday in protest against the incident.

Meanwhile, an International Labor Organization delegation is expected to visit Bangladesh on Wednesday, said Mohd Fazlul Hoque, president of the Bangladesh Employers’ Federation.

“The delegation is coming to discuss with the government of Bangladesh about how the ILO can assist the country in improving working conditions and occupational safety and health-related issues in the country to prevent occurrence of such incidents in the future,” said Hoque, adding that the four-member delegation would be led by Gilbert Fossoun Houngbo, deputy director general for Field Operations & Partnerships at the ILO.

At a session of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva on Monday, a cross-section of industrialized and developing countries, led by the U.S., called on Bangladesh to take drastic action to improve working conditions in its export-oriented apparel sector.

“We appreciate the government’s willingness to address worker safety and rights, but remain concerned by the recent tragedies in factories,” said Eileen Chamberlain Donahoe, the U.S. ambassador to the council, adding that concrete steps should be taken to improve workers’ conditions and remove barriers to fundamental labor rights.

Ireland, which holds the rotating EU presidency, called on Bangladesh to “ensure widespread, unannounced and rigorous factory inspections, and where breaches occur those responsible are held accountable in a manner sufficient to ensure deterrence.”

Dipu Moni, foreign minister of Bangladesh, told the U.N. body that the building collapse and the deaths that followed were a national tragedy, but said the nation “would emerge stronger as a nation through this mournful, sad episode.”

Seiji Machida, director for safety at the ILO, told WWD that work accidents cost countries between 3 and 5 percent of gross domestic product in losses. Asked about the recent wave of industrial disasters in Bangladesh and Pakistan, the ILO official emphasized there’s a need to enhance a preventative culture by governments, employers and workers. Machida noted enforcement and implementation “are weak links” and said countries like Bangladesh and Pakistan need to boost the number of inspectors, adding that “even if the numbers were doubled or tripled,” they would not be enough to cover all business sectors.

Primark said in a statement Monday it will pay compensation to victims of the tragedy.

As reported, one of Primark’s suppliers worked on the second floor of the building. The British company said it would compensate the victims who made Primark garments and their families.

“This will include the provision of long-term aid for children who have lost parents, financial aid for those injured, and payments to the families of the deceased,” Primark said.

Addidtionally, “Primark notes the fact that its supplier shared the building with those of other retailers. We are fully aware of our responsibility. We urge these other retailers to come forward and offer assistance.”

Labels from the Spanish brand Mango and the Canadian brand Joe Fresh were found at the location. Joe Fresh, owned by Loblaw Cos., said Friday it was “sending senior representatives from Loblaw Cos.’ sustainable supply chain team to meet with local officials in Bangladesh to get a precise response on what caused this tragedy.”