At least 175 mainly women workers were killed in a Bangladesh building collapse and rescuers searching for survivors said this morning that many more were trapped in the rubble of a complex that housed factories supplying Western clothes retailers.
The disaster, which comes five months after a factory fire that killed more than 100 people, could hurt Bangladesh's reputation as a source of low-cost goods and call attention to European and North American companies that buy products there.
Rescue workers were digging through the wreckage of the eight-storey Rana Plaza building in Savar, 30 km (20 miles) outside the capital Dhaka, which collapsed on Wednesday. More than 1,000 people were injured.
"The death toll could go up as many are still trapped under the rubble," Dhaka's district police chief, Habibur Rahman, told Reuters.
Dhaka city development authority on Thursday filed a case against the building's owner for faulty construction. It filed another case against the owner and the five garments factories for causing unlawful death, police chief Rahman said.
Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) president Mohammad Atiqul Islam said there were 3,122 workers in the factories on Wednesday. He said there had been indications from local officials that cracks had been found in the building the day before.
"We asked the garment owners to keep it closed," Islam said.
Rana Plaza's owner had told proprietors of the building's five garment factories that the cracks were not dangerous, Islam added. "After getting the green signal from the plaza owner all the garment factories opened," he said.
However, police official Mohammad Asaduzzaman said factory owners appeared to have ignored a warning not to allow their workers into the building after a crack was detected on Tuesday.
News reports beamed around the world showed young women workers, some apparently semi-conscious, being pulled out of the rubble by firefighters and troops. Doctors at Dhaka hospitals said they couldn't cope with the number of victims.
"I was at work on the third floor, and then suddenly I heard a deafening sound, but couldn't understand what was happening. I ran and was hit by something on my head," said factory worker Zohra Begum.
BUILDING FIRES, COLLAPSE
The Rana Plaza building collapse follows a fire at the Tazreen Fashion factory on the outskirts of Dhaka that killed 112 people in November and another incident at a factory in January in which seven people died, compounding concerns about worker safety and low wages in Bangladesh.
UK clothing retailer Primark, which has 257 stores across Europe and is a unit of Associated British Foods, confirmed that one of its suppliers occupied the second floor of the building.
"The company is shocked and deeply saddened by this appalling incident at Savar, near Dhaka, and expresses its condolences to all of those involved," Primark said in a statement on it's Ethical Trading website.
Canada's Loblaw, a unit of food processing and distribution firm George Weston Ltd, also confirmed a connection with the building. It said one factory made a small number of "Joe Fresh" apparel items for the company.
"We are extremely saddened to learn of the collapse of a building complex in Bangladesh and our condolences go out to those affected by this tragedy," Julija Hunter, public relations vice-president for Loblaw Companies, said in an email.
Both companies operate codes of conduct aimed at ensuring products are made in good working conditions.
Documents including order sheets and cutting plans obtained by Reuters appeared to show that other major clothing brands such as Spain's Mango and Benetton had used suppliers in the building in recent months. A Benetton spokesman said none of the factories were suppliers to the company.
About 3.6 million people work in Bangladesh's garment industry, making it the world's second-largest apparel exporter.
Following the Tazreen fire, giant U.S. retailer Wal-Mart Stores Inc. said it would take steps to alleviate safety concerns, while Gap Inc. announced a four-step fire-safety program.
"Still we are struggling to overcome the odds after the Tazreen fire, now another incident which is a strong blow for the sector," BGMEA's Islam said.
However, Edward Hertzman, a sourcing agent based in New York who also publishes trade magazine Sourcing Journal, said pressure from U.S. retailers to keep a lid on costs continues to foster unsafe conditions.
Hertzman, whose trade publication has offices in Bangladesh, said New Wave Bottoms Ltd occupied the second floor, Phantom Apparels Ltd the third, Phantom Tack Ltd the fourth and Ethar Textile Ltd the fifth.
The New Wave website listed 27 main buyers, including firms from Britain, Denmark, France, Germany, Spain, Ireland, Canada and the United States.