More than 87 people are feared dead as Rana Plaza, an eight-story building in the town of Savar, a suburb of the Bangladesh capital Dhaka, collapsed without warning at around 9 a.m. on Wednesday. The building housed several garment factories where more than 2,500 people worked, according to officials from the Bangladesh Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA).
The number of people still buried in the debris was still unclear at the end of the day, a police official told WWD. He said that the building collapsed so quickly that there had been little time for people to reach safety. The fire department and other official agencies have been working to find and rescue survivors from the building that eye witnesses have described as a ‘mess of cement and stone, all piled untidily together’.
The government has announced a day of mourning on Thursday, and the national flag will fly at half mast in solidarity for the dead and the injured.
An official from BGMEA, who asked not to be named, told WWD that although the government had stepped up all efforts on compliance issues at garment factories across the country, it was still a work in progress. “The efforts will simply have to change and intensify after this tragedy,” he said.
AFP has reported that two of the factories in the building —New Wave Style and New Wave Bottoms — were making clothing for clothing retailers Mango of Spain and Benetton of Italy, according to campaign group Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity.
Mohammed Aslam, owner of a smaller garment factory in the Dhaka area said that the shockwaves of the incident were being felt across the city and that many of the owners feared further reprisals from their global buyers. “It is just a matter of bad luck that we have had one tragedy after another. We would like the support of the global industry instead of more recriminations,” he said.
The past six months have been particularly rough for the garment industry in Bangladesh which is the second largest exporter of ready made garments in the world. The $20 billion textile industry is also one of the largest employers in the country. But morale has been severely tested after the death of more than 111 workers in a fire at Tazreen Fashion Ltd, a factory in the Ashulia district of Dhaka. For months after the incidents, the garment workers held protests demanding compensation for the families of the dead and the injured.
The situation on Wednesday has been reminiscent of the Tazreen disaster, particularly as local news reports have quoted a garment worker from the fifth floor of Rana Plaza as saying that cracks in the building were noticed the previous day by some workers but that factory managers urged them to ignore the cracks and return to work. At the Tazreen fire too, workers said that managers blocked the exit doors while telling workers there was nothing but a smoke alarm and they should return to work.
But the Tazreen fire was quickly followed by others; in particular one at Smart Fashions, Dhaka, in January that claimed seven lives, drawing attention to the safety requirements of factories as well as the poor working conditions for the workers.
The garment industry has also suffered setbacks as a series of hartals (strikes) in the last few months, fueled by the difference between the ruling political party and the opposition, have affected transport and other facilities. Factory owners say that they have been paying penalties amounting to thousands of dollars for delayed shipments although the situation is not in their control.
Last week, several industry organizations came together to express their concern about the effects of this political unrest on the garment industry. “A team of Russian buyers went back home from Shahjalal International Airport in Dhaka during the Wednesday-Thursday hartals last week,” BGMEA said in a combined statement with the Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA), urging the government to act to find an alternative to the hartals that are damaging business. They said that more than $500 million worth of export orders had already been lost in recent months because of a volatile political situation. Moreover, as foreign buyers are now threatening to cancel orders for delayed shipment, exporters have to go for expensive airfreight to meet the cut-off time, the trade bodies said.
The government has been making an effort to react to the situation that seems to be quickly spinning out of control.
Raziuddin Ahmed Razu, labour minister, assured garment industry leaders that compliance was on the rise. “We have begun inspection of all the garments factories to ensure compliance for the workers. We want to ensure better working environment. If any of the garment factories are found non-compliant, it will be closed,” he said.
Labor union leaders say that the industry needs much more than rhetoric and that the action being taken needs to be made in double-quick time.
International labour groups have been quick to react to Wednesday’s tragic loss of lives. The Clean Clothes Campaign has demanded immediate action from international brands. “Right now the families of the victims are grieving and the community is in shock. But they, and the hundreds injured in the collapse, are without income and without support. Immediate relief and longterm compensation must be provided by the brands who were sourcing from these factories, and responsibility taken for their lack of action to prevent this happening,” Tessel Pauli from Clean Clothes Campaign has commented on the website for the organization.
The website has cited that activists who entered the ruins of the building found labels from British brand Primark, US brands C&A, and Wal-Mart and German brand KIK.