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Frustrated Workers Protest in Bangladesh

Compensation checks are delayed as death toll tops 700.

The promise of salaries drew the survivors from the tragedy in Savar, Bangladesh, together on Tuesday, but instead they received disappointment and showed their frustration by protesting.

This came as police officials said the death toll in the collapse of the garment factory building on April 24 rose Tuesday to 715, as 21 more bodies were excavated from the wreckage of Rana Plaza. The eight-story building contained five garment factories, employing more than 3,000 workers.

More than 2.400 garment workers have been rescued, and teams continue to dig through the debris. Those who could walk and relatives of the injured were looking to the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association to make their wage payments on Tuesday. Instead, they congregated on a highway blocking traffic, protesting the BGMEA statement that it needed more time to compile and complete lists of the workers at the site.

Local press reports quoted workers as saying that they would not settle for one month’s wages but needed to be compensated for a four-month period, along with other mandatory compensations.

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High-level meetings in various government departments have been looking for ways to address the situation for the $20 billion garment industry, which is a mainstay of the economy. A committee that had earlier been formed to investigate working conditions in the garment industry has been tweaked to give it a higher profile, as it will now be headed by a cabinet minister, a government official told WWD. The committee will be led by Abdul Latif Siddique, textiles and jute minister, and the vice chairman for the committee will now be Begum Monnujan Sufian, minister of state for labor and employment.

The committee must submit reports on the welfare of workers and their working conditions within a three-month period, the government official said.

There are several other committees working on reports that include compliance issues, safety features of factories and fire hazards. A committee headed by Main Uddin Khandaker is looking at the reasons for the collapse of the building and submitted an initial report last week suggesting the root cause was the use of substandard materials, prompted by the turning on the power generator, which caused severe vibrations, bringing the building down.

Three engineers from Savar have already been arrested, along with the owners of a few of the garment factories in the building and Sohel Rana, the owner of Rana Plaza.

Authorities are trying to quash rumors that will incite workers to more protests, especially the whispers among the survivors that bodies are being hidden by the BGMEA and government officials to keep the incident from further impacting the industry’s image.

Government officials have rebutted the allegations, as has the BGMEA. Government officials also urged workers not to let “vested interests” incite them, suggesting that neighboring countries were trying to “cause unrest in the ready-made garment sector, whose phenomenal success had caused jealousy among other countries.”

Meanwhile, at the prime minister’s office Tuesday, the families of 36 garment workers who died in the fire at Tazreen Fashions Ltd. on Nov. 24 were given checks of 700,000 takas, or $8,957, each. The identification of the families was done through a scientific process, a government official told WWD, with DNA testing to prove that the bodies charred beyond recognition were not being claimed fraudulently. Sixty-two families were compensated earlier.

The fire, which killed more than 111 workers, brought global attention to safety features of garment factories in Bangladesh, as well as the need for education and training of management since supervisors reportedly locked the factory gates, resulting in more casualties.

U.S. Ambassador to Bangladesh Dan W. Mozena spoke about fire and safety issues and building design with BGMEA officials on Monday. Describing the meeting, a BGMEA official said that discussions included the urgent need to pass new labor laws. The U.S. is the second-largest trading partner for Bangladeshi apparel, after the European Union.

In the last few years, the Bangladesh government has been trying to diversify the country’s products, with a bigger export target of $28 billion for fiscal 2012-13, which started last July. In the first six months of the fiscal year, woven garment exports accounted for $4.95 billion and knitwear accounted for $4.98 billion, according to the Export Promotion Board.

“We have been growing well,” a BGMEA official said. “Diversification and skill sets have been growing among the garment workers. The challenge now is not to lose business because of the series of accidents we have experienced.”