Bangladesh building-collapse death toll tops 600

May 5, 2013

More than 600 bodies have been recovered from the garment-factory building that collapsed more than a week ago, police said Sunday as the grim recovery work continued in one of the worst industrial accidents in history.

Police said Sunday night that the death toll had reached 622. More than 200 bodies have been recovered since Wednesday, when authorities said 149 people had been listed as missing. The stench of decomposing bodies permeated the air as the eight-story Rana Plaza building lay in ruins, and it is anyone’s guess how many victims remain to be recovered.

The April 24 disaster is probably the worst garment-factory accident in history, and few industrial accidents of any kind have had a higher death toll. It surpassed long-ago garment-
industry disasters such as New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, which killed 146 workers in 1911, and more recent tragedies such as a 2012 fire that killed about 260 people in Pakistan and one in Bangladesh that same year that killed 112.

An architect whose firm designed the Rana Plaza building said Sunday that it had not been intended to handle heavy industrial equipment, let alone the three floors that were illegally added later. The equipment used by the five garment factories that occupied Rana Plaza included huge generators, which were turned on shortly before the building crumbled.

Masood Reza, an architect with Vastukalpa Consultants, said the building was designed in 2004 as a shopping mall and not for any industrial purpose.

“We designed the building to have three stories for shops and another two for offices. I don’t know how the additional floors were added and how factories were allowed on the top floors,” Reza said.

“Don’t ask me anything else. This is now a sensitive issue,” he said before hanging up the phone.

Government officials say substandard building materials, combined with the vibration of the heavy machines used by the factories, led to the collapse.

The building developed cracks a day before the collapse, and the owner, Mohammed Sohel Rana, called engineer Abdur Razzak Khan to inspect it. Khan appeared on television that night and said he had told Rana that the building should be evacuated.

Police also issued an evacuation order, but witnesses say that hours before the collapse, Rana told people that the building was safe and garment factory managers told their workers to go inside.

Rana has been arrested and is expected to be charged with negligence, illegal construction and coercion of workers, crimes punishable by a maximum of seven years in prison. Authorities have not said whether more serious criminal charges will be added.

Khan was arrested as well. Police said he worked as a consultant to Rana when the three illegal floors were added.

The Bangladeshi government had promised to make the garment industry safer after the November fire that killed 112 people, saying it would inspect factories for safety and pull the licenses of those that came up short. That plan has yet to be implemented.

Bangladesh’s $20 billion garment industry supplies retailers around the world and accounts for about 80 percent of the impoverished country’s exports. The collapse has raised strong doubts about retailers’ claims that they can ensure worker safety through self-regulation.

Bangladesh is popular as a source of clothing largely because of its cheap labor. The minimum wage for a garment worker is $38 a month, after being nearly doubled this year in the wake of violent protests by workers. According to the World Bank, the per capita income in Bangladesh was about $64 a month in 2011.

The European Union has said that it could restrict Bangladesh’s access to its crucial market if the government fails to ensure that basic labor standards are enforced.

“We are going to make it very clear to the Bangladeshi government that they have to take immediate action with a precise timeline,” E.U. Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht told Sky News. Otherwise, he said, the E.U. will conduct an investigation, which could lead to trade restrictions.

“Not because we want to hurt Bangladesh, but because what is happening is simply not acceptable,” he said. “From a humane point of view, we cannot afford that, and we have to do something about it.”

— Associated Press

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