DHAKA/NEW YORK – A garment factory building in Bangladesh that collapsed, killing at least 194 people, had been ordered evacuated after deep cracks became visible, but the factories flouted the order and continued working, officials said Thursday.
As hundreds of rescuers clawed through the rubble a day after Wednesday’s collapse, the screams of a woman pinned between concrete slabs and the occasional cries of trapped survivors mingled with the wails of relatives identifying bodies or waiting for news.
An enormous section of the concrete structure appeared to have splintered like twigs.
The disaster in the Dhaka suburb of Savar came less than five months after a blaze killed 112 people in a garment factory and underscored the unsafe conditions faced by Bangladesh’s garment workers, who produce clothes for international brands worn around the world.
After the cracks were reported Tuesday, managers of a local bank that also had an office in the building evacuated their workers and suspended operations. But the garment factories continued working, ignoring the instructions of the local industrial police, said Mostafizur Rahman, a director of the industrial police.
The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association had also asked the factories to suspend work starting Wednesday morning, just hours before the building fell.
“After we got the crack reports, we asked them to suspend work until further examination but they did not pay heed,” said Atiqul Islam, the group’s president.
Abdur Rahim, an employee who worked on the fifth floor, said a factory manager gave assurances that the cracks in the building were no cause for concern, so employees went inside.”After about an hour or so, the building collapsed suddenly,” Rahim said. The next thing he remembered was regaining consciousness outside.
Other surviving employees said gates had been locked.
On a visit to the site, Home Minister Muhiuddin Khan Alamgir told reporters the building had violated construction codes and that “the culprits would be punished.”
Abdul Halim, an official with the engineering department in Savar, said the owner was originally allowed to construct a five-story building but added another three stories illegally. Local police Chief Mohammed Asaduzzaman said police and the government’s Capital Development Authority have filed separate cases of negligence against the building owner.
Habibur Rahman, police superintendent of the Dhaka district, identified the owner as Mohammed Sohel Rana, a local leader of the ruling Awami League’s youth front. Rahman said police were also looking for the owners of the garment factories.
On Thursday, the odor of rotting bodies permeated holes cut into the building as rescue workers continued to search for more survivors and victims. Dozens of bodies, their faces covered, were laid outside a local school building so relatives could identify them.
The junior minister for home affairs, Shamsul Haque, said that a total of 2,000 people had so far been rescued from the wreckage.
The garment manufacturers’ group said the factories in the building employed 3,122 workers but it was not clear how many of them were in the building when it collapsed.
The collapse is prompting renewed calls for retailers and clothing companies to ensure the safety of workers.
“The whole building collapsed like a pancake within minutes. Most workers did not have any chance to escape,” national fire department head Ahmed Ali said.
Canadian clothing firm Joe Fresh and low-cost British clothing chain Primark, which said Wednesday that their suppliers made garments at the collapsed factory, both vowed to help improve working conditions in Bangladesh.
More than 700 garment workers have died since 2005 in Bangladesh, according to the International Labor Rights Forum, a Washington-based advocacy group.
“Labor rights groups around the world have been asking, indeed imploring, major retailers to address the grievous safety hazards in their Bangladesh factories and the response is always the same: vague promises and public relations dodges, while the pile of corpses grows ever higher,” said Scott Nova, executive director of the Washington-based Worker Rights Consortium.
Surging wages and inflation in China, the world’s largest apparel supplier, have prompted retailers such as Wal-Mart and Sears Holdings to shift production to Bangladesh.
In response, an $18 billion manufacturing industry has sprung up, marred by factories operated in buildings with poor electrical wiring, an insufficient number of exits and little firefighting equipment.