Bangladesh’s Deadly Building Collapse Renews Safety Woes
Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed ordered the arrest of the owner of the factory building that collapsed April 24, killing more than 300 people.
The building owner is a local politician named Sohel Rana, Mahbubul Hoque Shakil, special assistant to the prime minister, said in a telephone interview. Hasina also ordered the arrest of the owners of five factories located in Rana Plaza, he said.
Rana Plaza’s owner failed to get permission from the Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakkha, Dhaka’s development authority, to erect the building, Sheikh Abdul Mannan, a planning member of the agency, said April 25. Instead the permission came from the Savar Municipal Corp., a smaller local board, which has different building standards, he said.
“It is clear from visiting the site that they had violated several construction codes, especially the design code,” he said in a phone interview. “I saw the materials used in the columns and the material used for the rest of the building and it was completely substandard.”
The disaster is another black mark on Bangladesh’s industrial safety record, which made headlines after a fire at a plant producing garments for companies including Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT) that killed at least 100 people in November. More than 700 garment workers have died since 2005 in Bangladesh, according to the International Labor Rights Forum, a Washington-based advocacy group.
Bangladesh police arrested Bazlus Samad, chairman of New Wave Bottoms Ltd. and New Wave Style Ltd (SYPDA), online newspaper Bdnews24.com reported, citing a police officer. Rana and Samad couldn't be reached for comment.
Hundreds of workers demanding punishment to the owner of the building and shutdown of all garment factories blocked roads in and around the capital Dhaka, private television station ATN News reported. Some workers laid siege to the headquarters of Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association in the capital, Atiqul Islam, president of the industry group, said by phone.
“Labor-rights groups around the world have been asking, indeed imploring, major retailers to address the grievous safety hazards in their Bangladesh factories and the response is always the same: vague promises and public relations dodges, while the pile of corpses grows ever higher,” Scott Nova, executive director of the Washington-based Worker Rights Consortium, said in a statement.
Loblaw Cos. (L)’ Joe Fresh and Associated British Foods Plc (ABF) (ABF)’s Primark, which said that their suppliers made garments at the collapsed factory, both vowed to help improve working conditions in Bangladesh. Rescuers pulled 2,000 people alive from the mangled pieces of concrete, rods and bricks that remained of the building where thousands worked.
Joe Fresh, the clothing brand owned by Brampton, Ontario-based Loblaw, had a “small number” of items produced at the complex, Julija Hunter, a spokeswoman, said in an e-mailed statement.
Loblaw is “saddened” by the tragedy and will work with its vendor to see how it can help, Hunter said. Loblaw has standards for suppliers to make sure that products are produced in a socially responsible manner and conducts regular audits to ensure compliance, she said.
“We hope to hear more from the authorities about the status of this situation and we are committed to supporting them,” she said.
One of Primark’s suppliers occupied the building’s second floor, the company said in a statement. The budget fashion chain owned by London-based Associated British Foods said it was “shocked and saddened” by the accident and has worked with non-governmental organizations to help improve factory standards in Bangladesh.
Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer, said its own investigation confirmed it “had no authorized production in the facility,” said Kevin Gardner, a spokesman for the Bentonville, Arkansas-based company. “If we learn of any unauthorized production, we will take appropriate action based upon our zero tolerance policy on unauthorized subcontracting,” Gardner said.
Mohammad Ali, whose 25-year-old son remains missing, said he heard from his son’s co-workers that they saw cracks on the wall of the building before it collapsed and refused to go to work. Some managers threatened not to pay their monthly salary if they don’t return to work.
Families of the workers were seen wailing for their loved ones while others went from hospital to hospital in frantic searches for relatives. Injured workers were being carried on stretchers into a crowded hospital emergency room. Officers have handed over 128 bodies to relatives, according to Asaduzzaman.
As many as 6,000 people were employed in the facilities housed in the building 24 kilometers (15 miles) northwest of the capital Dhaka, the Bdnews24.com website reported without citing anyone. A few shops and a bank also had an office in the area, Health Minister A.F.M. Ruhal Haque said in a briefing.
Surging wages and inflation in China, the largest apparel supplier, have prompted retailers such as Wal-Mart and Sears Holdings Corp. (SHLD) to shift production to Bangladesh. In response, an $18 billion manufacturing industry has sprung up, marred by factories operated in buildings with poor electrical wiring, an insufficient number of exits and little firefighting equipment.
The collapsed building had developed cracks the previous day, prompting BRAC Bank Ltd. to order its employees to vacate the premises, said Zeeshan Kingshuk Huq, a spokesman.
“We evacuated our staff,” Huq said. “Other commercial units did not do the same.”
About half of the Bangladesh’s garment factories don’t meet legally required work safety standards, and those that have improved working conditions have done so under pressure from Western apparel makers, said Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, a non-governmental organization founded by two former garment child workers to promote safer factories.
Bangladesh’s labor law requires safety measures such as fire extinguishers and easily accessible exits at factories.
Workers-rights advocates are petitioning companies to sign a contractually enforceable memorandum that would require them to pay Bangladesh factories enough to cover costs of safety improvements.
So far, PVH Corp. (PVH), owner of the Tommy Hilfiger brand, and German retailer Tchibo are the only ones to sign the agreement, which also would require companies to provide accurate and regularly updated lists of their approved suppliers and subcontractors in Bangladesh. It won’t take effect until four major retailers sign on.
Textiles contribute more than 10 percent of Bangladesh’s gross domestic product and about 80 percent of the nation’s exports, mainly to the U.S. and the EU, according to the manufacturers’ association.
To contact the reporter on this story: Arun Devnath in Dhaka at firstname.lastname@example.org