Death Toll Climbs, More Rescued at Bangladesh Disaster Site Where Owner Lacked Authorization From Safety Agency
DHAKA, Bangladesh—The factory complex that collapsed this week in this country’s deadliest industrial accident was built without proper permission on unstable land, Dhaka city officials said, as the official death toll climbed to 275 and rescue workers continued to pull survivors from the rubble.
Rescuers digging with drills, shovels and their bare hands said many dead bodies were believed to still be under the wreckage of Rana Plaza, the eight-story building that collapsed Wednesday. Relatives of the missing, handkerchiefs to their faces to block out the smell, searched rows of corpses laid out in a nearby school.
Public anger over the collapse and reports of regulatory issues drew attention to the difficulty large Western retailers face in making sure their suppliers operate under safe conditions.
Retailers rely largely on trade association initiatives, independent third-party assessors and their own in-house auditors to monitor suppliers in Bangladesh, the second-largest clothing exporter after China.
But such efforts can fail to uncover some dangers: At least two garment factories at Rana Plaza had passed international labor and safety standard audits under a European trade organization that addressed specific safety concerns at the factories but didn’t assess the stability of the building that housed them.
Hundreds of thousands of garment workers from the areas around Dhaka went on strike Thursday to protest poor safety standards, bringing production to a virtual standstill.
The owner of Rana Plaza, local politician Sohel Rana, didn’t obtain mandatory permits from the municipal agency that oversees building safety in the greater Dhaka area, said Sheikh Abdul Mannan, a senior official with the agency. The building, in Savar, a commercial hub just north of Dhaka, “did not receive planning permission,” Mr. Mannan said. “It could and should have been demolished.”
Mr. Rana instead obtained permission from Savar’s mayor to build the commercial complex, which housed five textile factories, a bank and shops. Mr. Mannan said the mayor had no authority to allow the construction.
Mr. Rana hasn’t spoken publicly since the accident. Attempts to reach him to comment weren’t successful.
Savar Mayor Refayet Ullah told The Wall Street Journal that his office had issued a permit to Mr. Rana without seeking required permission from the Dhaka building-safety agency.
Mr. Ullah said the Dhaka agency took too long to issue permits at a time when Bangladesh’s garment industry was booming. “Hundreds of factories in this area have been built with local council permission,” he said.
He said Mr. Rana was a prominent citizen who owned other buildings in the area, all built with the go-ahead of the local council. Posters showing a smiling Mr. Rana line the walls on both sides of the road outside Rana Plaza.
Mr. Rana built Rana Plaza in 2007, draining water from a pond and filling it with concrete foundations, according to local residents. Such land is prevalent in Bangladesh, which has many low-lying, swampy areas.
Such land is unstable and can be dangerous if foundations aren’t properly built, said Mr. Mannan of the building-safety agency.
Bangladesh’s government has promised to take action to improve factory safety. In March, the ministry of labor and employment, international labor unions and the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association adopted a national action plan on fire safety. Plans included modernizing equipment, overhauling fire-safety and building-safety laws, and increasing inspections.
Canadian retailer Loblaw Cos., which said workers in the complex were making clothes for its Joe Fresh clothing line, said its factory-monitoring system doesn’t check for building construction or integrity. The company plans to expand the scope of its factory audits, it said Thursday.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc. said it hadn’t authorized its suppliers to use factories in Rana Plaza. Wal-Mart was listed as a customer on the website of Ether Tex Ltd., a garment factory that was operating on the fifth floor of the building. Wal-Mart said contacts between its suppliers and Ether Tex predated the factory’s presence in the building.
Two Bangladeshi factories that were in the building, and suffered worker fatalities in its collapse, had cleared an audit by the Business Social Compliance Initiative, which was set up a decade ago by the Brussels-based Foreign Trade Association, a body that comprises some 1,000 European retailers such as Adidas AG, Esprit Holdings Ltd. and Hugo BossAG.
The group said its auditors aren’t building engineers and didn’t take the state of the building into account when they conducted the checks. It is up to local authorities to ensure that construction and infrastructure are secure.
“It’s very important not to expect too much from the social audit,” said Lorenz Berzau, BSCI’s managing director. “BSCI and other initiatives contribute to improve the situation,” he said. “But it’s a long way we have to go.”
Workers’ groups complain such checks have failed to remedy poor safety standards. Over 700 people have died in factory fires in Bangladesh in recent years, and building collapses had already caused scores of deaths here before Wednesday’s accident.
On Tuesday, garment workers were evacuated from Rana Plaza after a major crack appeared on the exterior wall. Mr. Rana told a meeting later that day that the building would stand “for another hundred years,” according to people who attended.
Garment-factory officials asked workers to return on Wednesday. Some workers said they were threatened with docked pay if they didn’t comply. Soon after, the building collapsed, with several thousand workers inside.
Early Friday, Bangladeshi authorities said 275 bodies had been recovered from the collapsed building, the Associated Press reported. Brig. Gen. Mohammed Siddiqul Alam Shikder said 61 survivors have been rescued since Thursday afternoon, the AP added.
Sharmeen Begum’s daughter Sumi was in the building when it collapsed, and managed to phone her mother around 24 hours later, pleading for help before the line went dead.
Ms. Begum joined an anxious crowd outside the wreckage on Thursday, clutching a photograph of her daughter. “My daughter is alive inside!” she told rescue workers. “Please save her!”
John Sifton, Asia Advocacy Director at Human Rights Watch, said the tragedy highlighted concerns about labor rights in Bangladesh. “Had one or more of the Rana Plaza factories been unionized, its workers would have been in a position to refuse to enter the building on Wednesday morning, and thus save their lives,” he said.
Labor-rights activists said laws remain weak and implementation uneven in a country where factory owners, many of whom are also local politicians or members of Parliament, maintain political clout. No factory owner has been charged over a worker death in Bangladesh.
“At least 33 members of the current Parliament own garment businesses.” said Babul Akter, president of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation. “That’s more than 10% of seats. There are repeated instances of MPs linked to the garment industry blocking stricter legislation.”
Shahriar Alam, a member of Parliament and the managing director of Renaissance Group, a large garment manufacturer, said this wasn’t the case. “It’s not true that the labor law is weak,” he said.
The BSCI said Bangladesh had adequate laws governing the safety of buildings, but that the laws weren’t properly implemented.
contributed to this article.
Write to Tom Wright at email@example.com
Source: The Wall Street Journal