DHAKA/SAVAR, BANGLADESH – Protesters demanded the execution of factory bosses Wednesday over the death of nearly 400 people in a building collapse as May Day became the focus of workers’ anger over Bangladesh’s worst industrial disaster.
Despite calls by the prime minister for “cool heads,” tensions over the country’s deadliest industrial disaster showed little sign of abating and there were fears of more violence and vandalism at textile mills.
Several thousand workers holding red banners chanted “Hang the killers, Hang the Factory Owners!” as they took to the streets of Dhaka at the start of a series of nationwide demonstrations.
Kamrul Anam, one of the leaders of the Bangladesh Textile and Garments Workers League, said the workers were angry at “the murder” of their colleagues in the April 24 disaster at Savar, on the outskirts of Dhaka. “We want the severest punishment possible for those responsible for this tragedy,” he said.
Unions said demonstrations would be held in all of the country’s major cities. The first May Day protests were in Dhaka, with police putting the number of demonstrators at around 10,000, although that figure was expected to mushroom later in the day.
The Bangladesh government is facing foreign pressure to make credible moves to raise safety standards in the garment industry, with last week’s collapse at the Rana Plaza factory complex just the latest in a series of deadly disasters.
A total of seven people have so far been arrested and charged with “death by negligence” over the collapse of the eight-story building, which housed five separate garment factories. Those charged, who include the owner of the building, Mohammed Sohel Rana, as well as engineers who had given the structure the all-clear even after cracks were reported, have had to wear bulletproof vests at court appearances.
On Tuesday, a two-judge panel of the High Court ordered the government to “immediately” confiscate Rana’s other properties. The court also asked the central bank to freeze the assets of the owners of the five garment factories and use the money to pay the salaries and other benefits of their workers.
The order did not elaborate but it was implied that the salaries of the dead victims would be paid to their relatives.
Emergency workers hauling large concrete slabs from a collapsed eight-story building said Tuesday they expect to find many more bodies when they reach the ground floor, indicating the death toll will be substantially higher than the army’s official estimate of 393 so far. One report said it could be as high as 1,400. Rescuers do not expect to find any more survivors.
The illegally constructed, eight-story Rana Plaza collapsed on the morning of April 24, bringing down the five garment factories inside. Together, they employed 3,122 workers, but it is not clear how many were on duty at the time of the tragedy. Roughly 2,900 people have been accounted for — about 2,500 survivors and the 393 dead.
It is not clear how many people worked in other offices in the building. Based on details gathered from families at the site, up to 1,000 people may be missing.
Tensions have been further heightened by regular clashes between hardline activists and the police, who have been using teargas and rubber bullets to disperse crowds of protesters.
Many of the country’s 4,500 garment factories have been closed since last Wednesday, a major blow for the Bangladeshi economy, which is powered in large part by the $20 billion industry. Speaking to Parliament on Tuesday night, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina urged employees to return to work and criticized reported attacks on some factories.
“Who will benefit from vandalism in the mills and factories? If the mills and factories are shut down, (workers) will lose jobs and will have to return home with empty hands and fight for survival,” she said.
Meanwhile, Bangladesh defended Tuesday its decision to snub foreign aid as the U.N. revealed it had offered specialist help to find survivors. The U.N.’s humanitarian adviser in Bangladesh, Gerson Brandao, said he had made emergency disaster teams based in Singapore and Abu Dhabi available within hours of the accident.
“These are a group of people who are experts. They have dogs, microcameras and other equipment that we do not have in Bangladesh,” Brandao said.