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May 5, 2013

Bangladesh toll 547; search becomes more gruesome

DHAKA, Bangladesh — Ten days after the horrifying collapse of a garment-factory building, life has become still more gruesome for crews working to recover bodies at the site. The death toll rose to 547 on Saturday and the stench of decaying flesh was sickening evidence that the work is not yet done.

Rescue workers said some bodies have deteriorated so badly that they have found bones without flesh. Since the April 24 collapse in the Dhaka suburb of Savar, high temperatures have generally been 32 degrees C (90 degrees F) or above, and lows have rarely dipped below 27 C (80 F).

“The bodies are smelling. We are using air freshener to work here,” said Mohibul Alam, a firefighter at the collapse scene. The odor of decay is overpowering just the same.

Bodies have decomposed beyond recognition, Alam said, but he added that some could still be identified because the victims’ identification cards were found with them.

Some of the victims who had been closest to escaping appear to be among the last to be recovered. Only now have rescuers dug deep enough, using cranes and other equipment, to approach the stairs of the ground floor.

The official death toll from the collapse reached 547 Saturday and was expected to climb. The official number of missing has been 149 since Wednesday, though unofficial estimates are higher.

The disaster is likely the worst garment-factory accident ever, and there have been few industrial accidents of any kind with 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.

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 could ensure worker safety through self-regulation.

Five garment factories operated in the Rana Plaza building that collapsed, and many brand labels have been found in the wreckage, but only two retailers, Britain’s Primark and Canada’s Loblaw Inc., have acknowledged that their clothes were being made there at the time. Loblaw’s CEO has decried the “deafening silence” from what he said were more than two dozen other international retailers who used garment factories in the collapsed building.

Mainuddin Khandkar, the head of a government committee investigating the disaster, said Friday that substandard building materials, combined with the vibration of the heavy machines used by the five garment factories inside the Rana Plaza building, led to the horrific collapse. Because of a power outage, heavy generators were turned on about 15 minutes before the building fell, he said.

The building developed cracks a day before the collapse, and Rana Plaza owner Mohammed Sohel Rana called engineer Abdur Razzak Khan to inspect it. Khan appeared on television that night and said he told Rana 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 is expected to be charged with negligence, illegal construction and forcing workers to join work, crimes punishable by a maximum of seven years in jail. Authorities have not said if more serious crimes will be added.

On Thursday, Khan was arrested as well, on a charge of negligence. Police said he worked as a consultant to Rana when three illegal floors were added to what was supposed to be a five-story building.

The Bangladesh High Court also has ordered the government to confiscate Rana’s property and freeze the assets of the owners of the factories in Rana Plaza so the money can be used to pay the salaries of their workers.

Savar’s mayor and another local official have been suspended in an apparent effort by higher levels of Bangladesh’s government to fend off accusations that it is in part to blame for the tragedy because of weak oversight of the building’s construction.

In New Delhi on Friday, Bangladesh Finance Minister Abul Maal Abdul Muhith downplayed the impact of the disaster on the garment industry, which is by far the country’s biggest source of export income.

“The present difficulties ... well, I don’t think it is really serious — it’s an accident,” Muhith said. “And the steps that we have taken in order to make sure that it doesn’t happen, they are quite elaborate and I believe that it will be appreciated by all.”

The government made similar promises after the November garment factory fire that killed 112 people, saying it would inspect factories for safety and pull the licenses of those that failed. That plan has yet to be implemented.

Retailers have been drawn to Bangladesh 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 following violent protests by workers. According to the World Bank, the per capita income in Bangladesh was about $64 a month in 2011.

 

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