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Bangladesh mourns latest factory disaster

Monday 17 June 2013

By Syed Tashfin Chowdhury

SAVAR, Bangladesh - Around 3:30pm on April 24, the off-white floors of Enam Medical College and Hospital in Savar, on the outskirts of Dhaka, seemed to be painted with blood as critically injured workers from Rana Plaza, nearly 30 kilometers from Dhaka, were being rushed into the emergency room of the hospital.

The eight-storey Rana Plaza building, which housed five apparel factories supplying some of the world’s most famous clothing brand names from Primark to Pellegrini collapsed at around 9am on Wednesday. By Thursday afternoon, the death toll had crossed 187, while more than 1,500 people had been rescued, according to fire department sources.

That makes it Bangladesh’s worst industrial disaster to date, with the death toll exceeding the 111 workers who died in the Tazreen Fashion factory blaze on the outskirts of Dhaka last November. Survivors reported being forced to work even after the building had earlier been found hours earlier to be in a dangerous condition.

On Tuesday, cracks had developed in the building and the factories had given leave to all their workers as an inspection team from Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) along with an engineer from Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology and industrial police advised immediate evacuation.

But the owner of the building, Mohammad Sohel Rana, who is also a senior convener of Bangladesh Jubo League, a wing of the ruling party in Bangladesh, kept the building open on Wednesday.

Calling the news a "rumor spread by the media" on Wednesday morning, the factory administration managed to drive the workers into entering the building for the day’s work.

On Wednesday night, charges were filed against Rana over use of substandard and unspecified building materials in construction of the building. Police also filed charges against Rana, his father Abdul Khalek and owners of the garment factories for the loss of lives and damage.

The New Age in Bangladesh reported that together the five factories in the building employed at least 5,000 workers, 70% of whom were inside the building when the disaster had occurred.

Among the survivors in the hospital emergency room lay a badly bruised Sabuj (22) an assistant line ironman for New Wave Style Ltd, which was housed on the sixth floor of the building. According to its website, New Wave makes apparel products for Texman of Denmark, Pellegrini of Italy, Dress Barn of USA, Siplec and Yves Dorsey of France, Primark Stores of Ireland and The Children’s Place of Canada among others.

Survivor Sabuj told Asia Times Online: "After coming to work this morning, most workers feared to go into the building as the news had spread that cracks had appeared on the second floor of the building.

"Around 9:15am, the whole building shook. As the workers began to run toward the stairs, the walls and roof fell upon us," said Sabuj, who was trapped under a wall for the next few hours with only his head sticking out. "I summoned my strength to grab a rod nearby and with it broke the wall," he said. After freeing himself at around 2:30pm, he went on to use the same rod to rescue three other workers.

Other workers, like machine operator Ramija Begum (45), who also worked at the same building, were not as fortunate as Sabuj. Ramija’s dead body was found by her daughter Taslima (11) and son Mohammad Ali (15) at the hospital. While Ali seemed to be in shock, Taslima wailed for her mother.

Ramija had not wanted to go to work on April 24. "But she was frightened of losing a day’s wage if she stayed away, so she still went to work," said Taslima, a student at the nearby Savar Udayan Academy.

Ramija had to take care of Taslima and Ali by herself, after their father passed away a few years earlier. "Even this morning while dropping me off to school before going to work, she asked me to study properly," said Taslima.

Primark issued a statement on Wednesday saying the company was "shocked and saddened" while confirming that one of its suppliers "occupied the second floor" of the building.

A Children’s Place spokeswoman said one of the factories in the building had produced apparel for the retailer, but it wasn’t producing products for it at the time of the collapse. A spokesman for The Dress Barn said the company hasn’t purchased anything from these factories since 2010.

Another factory in the building, Ether Tex Ltd claims to be a subcontractor for Walmart Stores Inc and Europe’s C&A. Walmart said in a statement that it is investigating whether Ether Tex Ltd was currently producing items for the company.

The other factories include New Wave Bottoms Ltd, Phantom Apparels Ltd, and Phantom Tac Ltd. According to their websites, the factories variously made apparel products for brands based in Italy, Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Denmark, the United States and other countries.

Meanwhile, thousands of family members are still looking for their loved ones at the disaster zone, where the fire department, Bangladesh Army and officials of other law enforcement agencies are continuing their rescue work. According to fire department sources, the rescue work will take at least two to three more days.

Atiqul Islam, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufactures & Exporters Association on Wednesday blamed Rana for the accident. While standing at the scene of the accident, Islam said, "The owner promised to keep the building closed when he was asked to do so. But he did not keep his promise."

Workers had little option than to continue work at the factories as any absence would result in deduction of a day’s salary. The monthly salary of a ready-made garments factory worker can be as low as US$39. About 80% Bangladesh’s $24 billion annual export revenue comes from apparel products produced in nearly 4,500 factories spread across the nation.

The Ministry of Labour and Empowerment has asked a five-member committee, including the labour ministry director, the Chief Inspector of Factories and Establishment, a labor representative and a representative of the BGMEA, to submit findings into the disaster by next Thursday.

According to the Bangladesh Institute of Labour Studies, 33 similar disasters since 1990 killed a total of 630 people. None of the various reports on these incidents have been made public till date except for November’s Tazreen fire incident. An inquiry found that the blaze, during which workers were prevented from fleeing the building, was caused by sabotage.

Tazreen’s workers are still disgruntled that the owner of the garments factory has not been arrested five months after the incident.

This month, brand names supplied by factories whose workers were killed in the Tazreen blaze agreed to contribute to a $5.7 million compensation plan at a meeting hosted by IndustriALL Global Union and attended by major European retailers, a leading Bangladesh trade unionist, the Clean Clothes Campaign and the Worker Rights Consortium, according to a report on the IndustriALL Gobal Union website.

US corporations Walmart, Sears/Kmart and Disney refused to pay any compensation to the victims and failed to attend the meeting, the report said, claiming Walmart was "apparently the largest buyer from the Tazreen factory".

Walmart this month said it would donate US$1,600,000 to help start an Environmental, Health and Safety Academy in Bangladesh, according to a Reuters report on April 9.

Syed Tashfin Chowdhury is the Editor of Xtra, the weekend magazine of New Age, in Bangladesh.

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