Bangladesh Starts Manhunt for Building Owner as 340 Killed

Bangladesh police began a manhunt for the owner of the Rana Plaza where at least 340 people were killed in the factory complex’s collapse on April 24.

Sohel Rana has been banned from leaving the country, while police arrested executives of two garment makers housed in the Dhaka building. Bazlus Samad, chairman, and Mahmudur Rahman, managing director of New Wave Bottoms Ltd. and New Wave Style Ltd., were arrested after they turned themselves in, State Minister for Home Affairs Shamsul Hoque Tuku told reporters in the capital on April 26.

The disaster is at least the third reported industrial accident in the South Asian nation since November, when some 100 people died in a fire at a workshop that was producing garments for companies including Wal-Mart Stores Inc. Hundreds of protesters demanding punishment for Rana, a member of the ruling Awami League political party’s youth wing, blocked roads and clashed with the police in and around Dhaka yesterday. They also sought closure of all garment factories in the city.

“It is clear from visiting the site that they had violated several construction codes, especially the design code,” Sheikh Abdul Mannan, a planning member of Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakkha, Dhaka’s development authority, said April 25. “I saw the materials used in the columns and the material used for the rest of the building and it was completely substandard.”

Arrests Ordered

Rescuers have pulled 2,408 people alive from the debris, even as rain made the work more difficult, according to the police.

“There was no break in our operation,” Major Sajjad Sarwar of the Bangladesh Army, said by phone yesterday. “There are still signs of life at the disaster site.”

One police officer and several garment workers were injured in clashes in Savar, where the factory building collapsed, Tahmina Begum, an assistant sub-inspector in the Savar Model Police Station, said by phone.

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed on April 26 ordered the arrest of the owners of five factories located in Rana Plaza, Mahbubul Hoque Shakil, special assistant to the prime minister, said in a telephone interview April 26.

Six people have been taken into custody in connection with the collapse, including Rana’s wife, the Associated Press reported.

Rana’s permit to construct the building, where clothes were made for brands owned by Loblaw Cos. and Associated British Foods Plc, was from the Savar Municipal Corp., a local body that has lower building standards, and not Dhaka’s development authority, Mannan said.

Safety Standards

About half of Bangladesh’s garment factories don’t meet legally required work-safety standards, said Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, a non-governmental organization founded by two people who had worked in garment industry as children to promote safer factories.

Bangladesh’s labor law requires safety measures such as fire extinguishers and easily accessible exits at factories.

As many as 6,000 people were employed in facilities housed in Rana Plaza, 24 kilometers (15 miles) northwest of Dhaka, the Bdnews24.com website reported, without citing a source for the information. A few shops and a bank also operated from the building, Health Minister A.F.M. Ruhal Haque said in a briefing on April 24.

Some factory workers laid siege to the headquarters of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association in the capital, Atiqul Islam, president of the industry group, said by phone April 26. Garment factories in Dhaka remained shut for a second day today in the wake of the workers’ protests, he said.

Labor Rights

“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’s Joe Fresh and Associated British Foods’ Primark, which said that their suppliers made garments at the collapsed factory, both vowed to help improve working conditions in Bangladesh.

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.

Primark Suppliers

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.

Still Missing

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 didn’t return to work, he said.

Families of the workers were crying 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 315 bodies to relatives, according to police inspector Mohammad Asaduzzaman.

Surging wages and inflation in China, the largest apparel supplier, have prompted retailers such as Wal-Mart and Hoffman Estates, Illinois-based Sears Holdings Corp. 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.”

Petitioning Companies

Workers-rights advocates are petitioning companies to sign a contractually enforceable memorandum that would require them to pay Bangladesh factories enough to cover the cost of safety improvements.

So far, New York-based PVH Corp., 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 up.

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 European Union, according to the manufacturers’ association.

(Updates to lead with manhunt in first paragraph; adds AP report on arrest of owner’s wife in ninth)
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