NEW DELHI, India —
A clothing factory in an emerging country collapses or catches fire with horrific loss of life. Famous Western brands are found in the wreckage. An investigation reveals substandard practices in the local and global clothing trade.
There was a distinct feeling of déjà vu Thursday as rescuers worked desperately through the night at the site of a collapsed building in Bangladesh, crafting makeshift escape chutes from bolts of fabric.
The hand-wringing, finger-pointing and promises of change started hours after the eight-story Rana Plaza building pancaked Wednesday in Savar, just outside the nation’s capital of Dhaka, killing at least 275 people, most of them apparel workers, and injuring more than 1,000.
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After seeing deep cracks in the walls of the building Tuesday, police had ordered it evacuated. But officials at the garment factories operating inside ignored the order and kept more than 2,000 people working, authorities said.
The disaster in Savar is the worst in Bangladesh’s booming and powerful garment industry, surpassing a fire at Tazreen Fashions five months ago that killed 112 people and brought widespread pledges to improve the country’s worker-safety standards.
Instead, very little has changed in Bangladesh, where wages, among the lowest in the world, have made it a magnet for numerous global brands. Companies operating in the collapsed building say their customers included retail giants such as Wal-Mart, Dress Barn and Britain’s Primark.
On Thursday, hundreds of rescuers, some crawling through the maze of rubble in search of survivors and corpses, spent a second day working amid the cries of the trapped and the wails of workers’ relatives gathered outside the building, which housed numerous garment factories and a handful of other companies.
Rescuers late Thursday found 40 survivors trapped on the fourth floor. Twelve were soon freed, and crews were working to get the others out safely, said Brig. Gen. Mohammed Siddiqul Alam Shikder, who is overseeing rescue operations. Crowds applauded as survivors were brought out.
Shikder said the death toll had reached 238 by Friday morning. The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association said the factories in the building employed 3,122 workers, but it was not clear how many were inside when it collapsed.
Despite the horrific scenes, dramatic change in the Bangladesh or global clothing industries is unlikely any time soon, according to labor, business and disaster experts, given corruption, desperation, vested interests and Western consumers who favor better working conditions but balk at paying more for their T-shirts, especially when their own jobs are vulnerable.
“This is the latest terrible demonstration of the race to the bottom,” said Jyrki Raina, general secretary of the IndustriALL Global Union, a Switzerland-based labor group. “International brands go to the cheapest production country, currently Bangladesh.”
Western labor unions for decades have targeted and shamed Nike, Wal-Mart, Gap and other publicity-conscious brands in their drive for better work practices.
The pressure has led to some changes. Larger retailers have adopted codes of conduct and hired auditing firms to inspect factories.
But policing the industry can resemble a Whac-A-Mole game. “More,” “faster,” “cheaper,” “better” are mantras in an ever-shifting landscape of sharp-elbowed labor brokers, interchangeable subcontractors and fleet-footed contractors willing to switch countries or companies for pennies per piece. At the top of the competitive heap are retailers bowing and scraping to bargain-hungry consumers.
The building collapse highlighted the dangers workers still face. Bangladesh has about 4,000 garment factories and exports clothes to leading Western retailers, and industry leaders hold great influence in the South Asian nation.
Its garment industry was the third-largest in 2011, after China and Italy. It has grown rapidly in the past decade, a boom fueled by Bangladesh’s exceptionally low labor costs. The country’s minimum wage is now the equivalent of about $37 a month.
Officials said soon after the collapse that numerous construction regulations had been violated.
Abdul Halim, an official with Savar’s engineering department, said the owner of Rana Plaza was allowed to construct a five-story building but added another three stories illegally.
On a visit to the site, Home Minister Muhiuddin Khan Alamgir said the building had violated construction codes and “the culprits would be punished.”
But on the streets of Dhaka, many believe the owners of the building and the factories will ultimately walk free. “Was anyone punished earlier? Was the owner of Tazreen Fashions arrested? They are powerful people; they run the country,” said Farid Ahmed, an insurance-company official.
The Tazreen factory that burned in November lacked emergency exits, and its owner said only three floors of the eight-story building were legally built. Surviving employees said managers had told them to go back to work after the fire alarm sounded.
Among the garment makers in the building were Phantom Apparels, Phantom Tac, Ether Tex, New Wave Style and New Wave Bottoms. The New Wave companies, according to their website, make clothing for major brands including North American retailers The Children’s Place and Dress Barn, Britain’s Primark, Spain’s Mango and Italy’s Benetton. Ether Tex said Wal-Mart, the world’s biggest retailer, was one of its customers.
Wal-Mart said none of its clothing had been authorized to be made in the facility, but it is investigating. Primark acknowledged it was using a factory in Rana Plaza. Benetton said no Benetton suppliers were in the building. Mango said it had only discussed production of a test sample with one of the factories.
Material from The Associated Press
is included in this report.