DHAKA, Bangladesh — A building in Bangladesh housing several factories that make clothing for European and U.S. consumers collapsed Wednesday, five months after a fire at a similar facility prompted leading multinational brands to pledge to work to improve safety in the country’s booming but poorly regulated garment industry.
By late Wednesday, Bangladeshi news media reported that more than 120 bodies had been recovered from Rana Plaza, a building in Savar, an industrial suburb of Dhaka, the capital. Police officials put the death toll at 134, with more than 1,000 of 2,500 workers injured, and many still trapped beneath the rubble. Soldiers, paramilitary police officers, firefighters and other citizens clawed through the wreckage, searching for survivors and bodies.
Brig. Gen. Ali Ahmed Khan, head of the National Fire Service, said an initial investigation had found that the Rana Plaza building violated codes, with the four upper floors having been constructed illegally without permits.
“There was a structural fault as well,” Khan added, saying that the building’s foundation was substandard.
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The collapse followed a fire in November at Tazreen Fashions, a garment factory near Dhaka, that killed 112 workers making shorts and sweaters for export. That led importers, including Wal-Mart, to vow to do more to ensure the safety of factories where goods they sell are manufactured. Government officials also pledged to tighten safety standards.
Wednesday’s building collapse quickly revived questions about the commitment of local factory owners, Bangladeshi officials and global brands to provide safe working conditions.
Bangladeshi news media reported that inspection teams had discovered cracks in the structure of Rana Plaza on Tuesday. Shops and a bank branch on the lower floors closed immediately, but the owners of the garment factories on the upper floors ordered employees to work Wednesday, despite the risks.
Labor activists combed the wreckage Wednesday afternoon and discovered labels and production records suggesting that the factories were producing garments for major European and U.S. brands. Labels were discovered for the Spanish brand Mango and for the low-cost British chain Primark.
Activists said the factories also had produced clothing for Wal-Mart, the Dutch retailer C&A, Benetton and Cato Fashions, according to Customs records, factory websites and documents discovered in the collapsed building.
Survivors described a sensation akin to being in an earthquake: hearing a loud and terrifying cracking, feeling the concrete factory floor roll beneath their feet, and watching concrete beams and pillars collapse as the eight-story building seemed to implode.
“I heard screams,” said Mahmudul Hasan, a quality inspector at Ether Tex, a garment factory, who was hit by a falling ceiling. “My heart started pounding. I lay down near a pillar and started thinking that perhaps I was going to die.”
Despite the safety pledges that followed last year’s Tazreen Fashions fire, many labor-rights advocates said Wednesday that the collapse of Rana Plaza showed a continued failure to take meaningful action.
“The front-line responsibility is the government’s, but the real power lies with Western brands and retailers, beginning with the biggest players: Wal-Mart, H&M, Inditex, Gap and others,” said Scott Nova, executive director of Worker Rights Consortium, a labor-rights organization.
Bangladesh is the world’s second-leading garment exporter, trailing only China, but the industry has been plagued by concerns over safety and protests over rock-bottom wages. The industry has grown rapidly in the past decade, particularly as rising wages in China have pushed many global clothing companies to look for lower costs elsewhere. Bangladesh has the lowest labor costs in the world, with the minimum wage for garment workers set at roughly $37 a month.
Such low labor costs have attracted not just Wal-Mart but almost every major global clothing company, including Sears, Gap, Tommy Hilfiger and many others. Bangladesh has more than 5,000 garment factories, employing more than 3.2 million workers, many of them women, and advocates credit the industry for lifting people out of poverty, even with such low wages. Exports also provide a critical source of foreign exchange that helps the government offset the high costs of imported oil.
Critics have argued, however, that the outsize importance of the industry has made the government reluctant to take steps that could increase costs or alienate foreign brands. Labor unions are almost nonexistent, and a labor organizer, Aminul Islam, was tortured and slain last year. The case remains unsolved. Meanwhile, some factory owners say they cannot raise wages or invest in upgrading facilities because of the low prices paid by Western brands.
On Wednesday, a Wal-Mart spokesman said the retailer was investigating to see if any of the factories in the building were currently producing for it.
One problem exposed in the Tazreen Fashions fire was the opacity of the global supply chain for clothing. The Tazreen factory was making apparel for Wal-Mart and Sears, but after the fire both retailers said they did not know that and accused their suppliers of secretly subcontracting the jobs.