26 Apr Death Toll Hits 238 in Bangladeshi Building Collapse
The collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Savar, an industrial suburb of Dhaka, the capital, came only five months after a horrific fire at a similar facility prompted leading multinational brands to pledge to work to improve safety in the country’s booming but poorly regulated garment industry.
By early Thursday, police officials reported that more than 1,000 of the 2,500 workers were injured, with many of them still trapped. Soldiers, paramilitary police officers, firefighters and other citizens were enlisted in the search for survivors and bodies. Brig. Gen. Mohammed Siddiqul Alam Shikder, who is overseeing rescue operations, said the death toll had risen to 238 by Thursday night, The Associated Press reported.
Brig. Gen. Ali Ahmed Khan, head of the National Fire Service, said that an initial investigation found that the Rana Plaza building violated codes, with the four upper floors having been constructed illegally without permits.
“There was a structural fault as well,” General Khan added, noting that the building’s foundation was substandard.
The collapse followed a fire in November that killed 112 workers making shorts and sweaters for export and that led importers, including Walmart, to vow to do more to ensure the safety of factories where goods they sell are manufactured. The building collapse on Wednesday quickly revived questions about the commitment of local factory owners, Bangladeshi officials and global brands to provide safe working conditions.
The Bangladeshi news media reported that inspection teams had discovered cracks in the structure of Rana Plaza on Tuesday. Shops and a bank branch on the lower floors immediately closed. But the owners of the garment factories on the upper floors ordered employees to work on Wednesday, despite the safety risks.
Labor activists combed the wreckage on Wednesday afternoon and discovered labels and production records suggesting that the factories were producing garments for major European and American brands. Labels were discovered for the Spanish brand Mango, and for the low-cost British chain Primark.
Activists said the factories also had produced clothing for Walmart, the Dutch retailer C & A, Benetton and Cato Fashions, according to customs records, factory Web sites and documents discovered in the collapsed building.
Survivors described a sensation akin to being in an earthquake: hearing a loud and terrifying cracking sound; feeling the concrete factory floor roll beneath their feet; and watching concrete beams and pillars collapse as the eight-story building suddenly seemed to implode.
“I heard screams,” said Mahmudul Hasan, a quality inspector at Ether Tex, a garment factory, who was hit by a falling ceiling. “My heart started pounding. I lay down near a pillar and started thinking that perhaps I was going to die.”
International attention was focused on labor conditions in Bangladesh five months ago, with the fatal fire at Tazreen Fashions, a garment factory near Dhaka. That fire brought pledges from government officials and many global companies to tighten safety standards.
But on Wednesday, many labor rights advocates said the collapse of Rana Plaza showed a continued failure to take meaningful action.
“The front-line responsibility is the government’s, but the real power lies with Western brands and retailers, beginning with the biggest players: Walmart, H & M, Inditex, Gap and others,” said Scott Nova, executive director of Worker Rights Consortium, a labor rights organization. “The price pressure these buyers put on factories undermines any prospect that factories will undertake the costly repairs and renovations that are necessary to make these buildings safe.”
Bangladesh is the world’s second-leading garment exporter, trailing only China, but the industry has been plagued by concerns over safety and angry protests over rock-bottom wages. The industry has grown rapidly in the past decade, particularly as rising wages in China have pushed many global clothing companies to look for lower costs elsewhere. Bangladesh has the lowest labor costs in the world, with the minimum wage for garment workers set at roughly $37 a month.