Friday 26 April 2013

Building collapse in Bangladesh

This reflects the greed of western corporations who employ slave labour in their quest for profit

Bangladesh building collapse: anger amid desperate search for survivors
Death toll climbs to 238 amid claims that eight-storey building was put up without correct permits and labour activists call for better protection

25 April, 2013

Forty people have been found alive in the rubble of an eight-storey factory outside the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka as rescuers desperately tried to reach survivors nearly 36 hours after the building collapsed.

Victims were still calling for help from among the piles of shattered concrete slabs, according to rescue workers and volunteers, as hope began to fade for hundreds still trapped. By evening, the death toll stood at 238 with more than 600 injured, many seriously.

Army officers in charge of the rescue operation said an estimated 900 people were still missing after the building collapsed at 9am on Wednesday morning, just as the day's work was beginning.

High street stores including Primark and Matalan have issued statements confirming that companies working in the Rana Plaza complex, in the suburb of Savar outside Dhaka, had supplied them with clothes. Mango said it had placed an order for samples at the factory which was yet to be fulfilled after activists found clothing labels from the Spanish retailer in the debris.

In chaotic scenes hundreds of volunteers combed through the pile of steel and concrete, using electric drills, shovels, crowbars and their bare hands. Outside the complex, hundreds of garment workers gathered, some forming human chains to pass bottles of water and torches to rescuers. Others milled about, angry and tense.

Elsewhere in the Savar industrial zone, around 20 miles from the centre of Dhaka, thousands of workers from the hundreds of garment factories demonstrated against poor safety standards. Television reports said hundreds of protesting workers clashed with police in Dhaka and the nearby industrial zone of Ashulia.

The disaster in Savar is the worst ever for Bangladesh's booming and powerful garment industry.

The exact sequence of events before the collapse is still unclear but it appears local authorities had ordered the building to be evacuated after cracks appeared in walls earlier in the week. A bank on the second floor shut after the warning.

The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), which represents manufacturers, also said it asked the factories to suspend work from Wednesday morning.

"After we got the crack reports, we asked them to suspend work until further examination, but they did not pay heed," said Atiqul Islam, the group's president.

However, locals claim that garment factory owners then ordered their workers into the building and sent retainers to intimidate those who opposed the decision.

Offices of the BGMEA in Dhaka were attacked by angry crowds on Thursday.

There are also claims that a second official visited the building but, after a meeting with the owner, said it was safe pending further inspection.

Sohel Rana, a local politician with the ruling Awami League, built the complex in 2007. He has disappeared and has not made any comment about the disaster.

One volunteer, hair white with dust and sweating profusely, kicked at a loose block of concrete in disgust at the poor quality of the building's construction. "There's hardly any iron in this structure," he said. "Look at that, it's just sand and cement."

Rana is also accused of failing to obtain correct permits for the factory from the Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakkha (Rajuk), the agency in charge of construction safety in Dhaka. Instead, he obtained nominal permission from the chairman of the local municipality, a political ally, it is claimed.

"It is illegal to construct a building without planning permission," said Emdadul Islam, chief engineer at Rajuk. "The municipality has no right to issue any permissions for construction."

Refayet Ullah, the mayor of Savar municipality, confirmed that his office had issued the permit.

More than 700 garment workers have died since 2005 in Bangladesh, according to the International Labour Rights Forum, a Washington-based advocacy group. But despite promises of reform, say activists, labour laws remain weak and implementation continues to be uneven. No owner has ever been charged over the deaths.

Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity, said the political influence of garment manufacturers made life difficult for workers. "There are repeated instances of MPs linked to the garment industry blocking stricter legislation," she said.

Several million shirts, trousers and other garments were produced each year at the complex. Primark has acknowledged it was using a factory in Rana Plaza, but many other retailers listed as clients by firms in the complex distanced themselves from the disaster, saying they were not involved with the factories at the time of the collapse or had not recently ordered garments from them.

Matalan said it used to be supplied by one of the factories at the complex but had no current production there. Benetton said in an email to the Associated Press that people involved in the collapse were not Benetton suppliers. Walmart said it was investigating and Mango said it had only discussed production of a test sample of clothing with one of the factories.

A factory fire in November that killed 112 people drew international attention to working conditions in Bangladesh's $20bn-a-year textile industry.

Bangladesh's garment industry was the third largest in the world in 2011, after China and Italy. It has grown rapidly over the past decade, a boom fuelled by some of the world's lowest labour costs, and now employs as many as four 4four million people, mainly women. The national minimum wage, which was doubled in 2010, is £19 a month.

The Tazreen factory that caught fire in November lacked emergency exits, and its owner said only three floors of the eight-storey building were legally built. Survivors said gates had been locked and managers had told them to go back to work after the fire alarm went off.

The Ethical Trading Initiative, an alliance of businesses, unions and voluntary organisations which aims to improve working conditions, said this week's disaster was "a wake-up call to any responsible brand sourcing from Bangladesh".

"The earlier fire and yesterday's tragedy of the building collapse serves to highlight the chronic state of fire and building safety in the country. It is clear that the building inspection regulations are simply not working. Therefore … it falls to sourcing companies to ensure that at least the minimum standards in fire and building safety are achieved," said ETI director Peter McAllister.

Shariful Islam, 25, who worked on the seventh floor of Rana Plaza as a quality checker, described how he was returning to work after a meeting with production managers and supervisors when he heard a loud noise.

"Immediately we fell several stories. I closed my eyes as the entire place was engulfed with dust. A stitching machine fell on my leg," said Shariful, who was pulled from the rubble by co-workers. "All I could see were dead bodies all around me."

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