Western Firms Feel Pressure as Toll Rises in Bangladesh

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DHAKA, Bangladesh -- As rescuers struggled on Thursday to reach survivors in one of the worst manufacturing disasters in history, pointed questions were being raised about why a Bangladesh factory building was not padlocked after terrified workers notified the police, government officials and a powerful garment industry group about cracks in the walls.

As the death toll neared 300, the owner of the collapsed building, the eight-story Rana Plaza, was in hiding, and the police and industry leaders were blaming him for offering false assurances to factory bosses that the structure was sound, leading to the decision to allow 3,000 workers return to work.

Pressure continued to build on Western companies that had promised after a deadly fire in November to take steps to ensure the safety of Bangladeshi factories that make the goods the companies sell. Activists combing through the rubble here have already discovered labels and documents linking the factories to major European and American brands, like the Children's Place, Benetton, Cato Fashions, Mango and others.

PVH, the parent company of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, and Tchibo, a German retailer, have endorsed a plan in which Western retailers would finance fire safety efforts and structural upgrades in Bangladeshi factories -- although they first want other companies to sign on.

Walmart has refused to join that effort. But, in January, it announced that it would demand that factories quickly correct any safety violations and would dismiss any contractor that uses unapproved or unsafe factories. Two weeks ago, Walmart pledged $1.8 million to establish a health and safety institute in Bangladesh to train 2,000 factory managers about fire safety.

On Thursday, the Bangladeshi authorities opened an investigation into the collapse, while the police brought negligence charges against the building's owner, Sohel Rana, his father and the owners of four factories in the building. Bangladesh's High Court also issued a summons for Mr. Rana, who is involved in local politics for the country's ruling party, the Awami League. He has been ordered to appear in court next Tuesday.

The immediate question was why the garment factories on the upper floors of the Rana Plaza building in Savar, outside Dhaka, the capital, were operating when the structure collapsed Wednesday morning. Industry leaders continued to point to Mr. Rana and what they said were his false assertions that the structure was safe. "Based on that, they ran the factories yesterday," said Mohammad Atiqul Islam, the president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, in a telephone interview. He said his staff had told factory owners on Tuesday to stay closed until the building was inspected. "We had very clearly told the owners not to open."

But analysts said that, based on past experience, there was likely to be plenty of blame to go around, with harried factory owners scrambling to fill orders under tight deadlines imposed by their Western customers.

"Even in a situation of grave threat, when they saw cracks in the walls, factory managers thought it was too risky not to work because of the pressure on them from U.S. and European retailers to deliver their goods on time," said Dara O'Rourke, an expert on workplace monitoring at the University of California, Berkeley. He added that the prices Western companies pay "are so low that they are at the root of why these factories are cutting corners on fire safety and building safety."

Numerous Western apparel companies issued statements acknowledging that they had used factories in the building and voicing their condolences.

Primark, a British retailer, confirmed it was using a factory on the building's second floor and said it was "shocked and deeply saddened by this appalling incident." Primark said it has been engaged for several years with nongovernmental organizations and "other retailers to review the Bangladeshi industry's approach to factory standards."

Loblaw, a Canadian retailer that markets the apparel brand Joe Fresh, said one factory produced "a small number" of Joe Fresh garments. "We are extremely saddened" by the building collapse, Loblaw said in a statement, adding that, "we will be working with our vendor to understand how we may be able to assist them during this time."

But a few Western companies, including Benetton, denied having garments made there, even though documents were found linking those companies to factories in Rana Plaza. Worker advocates said it was possible that subcontractors were using the factories without the companies' knowledge.

What is increasingly clear is that the collapse should not have been a surprise. Factory fires have killed hundreds of garment workers in the past decade. At the same time, many factory buildings are substandard and unsafe. Bangladeshi fire officials say the upper floors of Rana Plaza were illegally constructed.

On Tuesday, the day before the collapse, news began spreading about cracks in the building. A local television journalist, Nazmul Huda, said he rushed to the scene but that local men employed by the building's owner had prevented him from entering the building and filming the damage.

Mr. Huda said that local police officers had also arrived at the building, but that they did not appear concerned and instead warned him not to run a story. (He said his station, ETV, did so anyway.) He said a local police supervisor later reassured him that an engineer had inspected the cracks and had found no problems.

"Local police and the local administration did not give importance to this problem," Mr. Huda said. "They could have locked the building."

Abdus Salam, the director general of the Industrial Police, a special law enforcement agency that oversees garment factories, said his district commander had also received a complaint about the building on Tuesday and had rushed to the scene.

"People were rushing out," Officer Salam said in a telephone interview. "They saw the cracks in the walls."

He said his district commander asked the factory owner to close the building until an inspection had been conducted. But when two of his officers returned Wednesday morning, Officer Salam said, the factories were operating. He said the two officers entered the building to investigate and are still missing after the accident.

At the scene, thousands of people gathered around the collapsed building, as family members of missing workers volunteered in the search. Blood collections were under way across Dhaka. Rescue teams comprising soldiers, paramilitary officers and firefighters were expected to keep searching on Friday, though officials refrained from using heavy machinery to clear debris.

"If we use heavy equipment, the building might collapse again," said Brig. Gen. Ali Ahmed Khan, head of the National Fire Service. "The rest of the surviving workers might die if the building collapses further."

Bangladesh's government declared Thursday a national day of mourning, but anger and outrage spilled onto the streets. Hundreds surrounded an industrial building in the heart of Dhaka, upset that garment factories continued to operate inside, and tossed bricks at the windows, demanding that work be stopped. Thousands of garment workers also staged protests in industrial districts ringing the capital.

Bangladesh is the world's second-leading exporter of apparel, and the domestic garment industry depends on a low wage formula in which the minimum wage is about $37 a month. Garment exports are a critical driver of the Bangladeshi economy, which creates pressure to keep wages low and workers in line. Labor unions are almost nonexistent in the industry; one labor organizer, Aminul Islam, was brutally killed last year in a case that is still unsolved.

Julfikar Ali Manik reported from Dhaka, Steven Greenhouse from New York and Jim Yardley from New Delhi.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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