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Bangladeshis demand worker safety as toll tops 400

Published: Wednesday, May 1, 2013 8:14 a.m. CDT

SAVAR, Bangladesh — Thousands of workers paraded through central Dhaka on May Day to demand safer working conditions and the death penalty for the owner of a building housing garment factories that collapsed last week in the country's worst industrial disaster, killing at least 402 people and injuring 2,500.

As authorities buried the bodies of 18 unidentified workers killed in the collapse, Pope Francis and European Union officials criticized working conditions in the nation's $20 billion a year garment industry, which supplies many European and American retailers.

Francis said he was shocked by a headline from the building collapse that said some of the workers were living on 38 euros a month.

"This was the payment of these people who have died ... And this is called 'slave labor,'" he said. Vatican Radio said the pope made the remarks during a private Mass Wednesday morning at the Vatican.

EU officials said they are considering action including changes to Bangladesh's duty-free and quota-free access to the giant EU market to "incentivize" responsible management of the nation's garment industry. Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign affairs chief, and its trade commissioner, Karel De Gucht, called in a statement for Bangladesh authorities to act immediately to ensure factories comply with international labor standards.

Pressure built inside Bangladesh as well, as a raucous procession of workers on foot, pickup trucks and motorcycles wound its way through central Dhaka on Wednesday. They waved the national flag and banners, beat drums and chanted "direct action!" and "death penalty!"

From a loudspeaker on the back of a truck, a participant spoke for the group: "My brother has died. My sister has died. Their blood will not be valueless."

May Day protests, customarily an opportunity for workers in this impoverished South Asian nation to vent their grievances, have taken on a poignant significance this year following the April 24 disaster.

Five garment factories were housed in the illegally constructed, eight-story Rana Plaza that collapsed in this Dhaka suburb. Five months after a fire killed 112 people at another clothing factory, the collapse again exposed safety problems in Bangladesh's garment industry.

The death toll from the collapse passed 400 Wednesday, with 399 bodies pulled from the rubble and three of the injured dying in the hospital, police said.

Several hundred people attended a mass funeral in a Dhaka suburb for 18 unidentified workers who died in the building collapse. The bodies, rotting in the spring heat, were brought to the graveyard on the back of a flatbed truck. One woman wailed that one of the bodies was her sister's and begged to take it.

More than 80 additional graves have been prepared, with authorities expected scores of more bodies to remain unclaimed.

The owner of the building, Mohammed Sohel Rana, is being questioned by police while under arrest. He is expected to be charged with negligence, illegal construction and forcing workers to join work, which is punishable by a maximum of seven years in jail. Authorities have not said if more serious crimes will be added.

Workers protesting Wednesday demanded capital punishment for the 38-year-old Rana, a small-time political operative with the ruling Awami League party.

"I want the death penalty for the owner of the building. We want regular salaries, raises and absolutely we want better safety in our factories," said Mongidul Islam Rana, 18, who works in a garment factory that was not located in Rana Plaza.

The Bangladesh High Court has ordered the government to confiscate Rana's property and to 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.

Rana had permission to build five stories but added three more floors illegally. When huge cracks appeared in the building a day before its collapse, police ordered an evacuation, but Rana told tenants that it was safe and they should go back in. The next day, a bank and some shops refused to occupy the premises but factory managers told their workers to go back in. A couple of hours later the building came down in a heap of concrete and bricks.

Some 2,500 people escaped with injuries. Rescue workers expect the death toll to rise, because they believe many bodies are still buried on the ground level.

There is confusion over how many people remain missing.

Zillur Rahman Chowdhury, a Dhaka district administrator, said so far 149 people have been listed missing. A police official, Aminur Rahman, said police have recorded up to 1,300 names as missing, but he cautioned that many may be duplicates. "We will now have to screen the names by computer to find the actual number," he said.

Rescuers estimate that the building turned into 600 tons of rubble, of which 350 tons has been removed.

Anxious relatives were still looking for their loved ones missing. Kulsum, who uses one name, was looking for her husband, holding his photograph among several hundred people at a nearby school ground.

"My husband was inside the building on the fifth floor," said Kulsum. "I haven't found him. Neither alive nor dead."

The garment-factory fire in November brought widespread pledges to improve worker-safety standards in Bangladesh. But since then, very little has changed.

"I think it is a wakeup call for the nation, a wakeup call for the industry and for the trade unions," said Shirin Akter, founding president of Karmojibi Nari, a Dhaka-based Bangladeshi group that lobbies for the rights of women in the workplace.

Bangladesh's garment industry was the third-largest in the world in 2011, after China and Italy.

Among the garment makers in the building were Phantom Apparels, Phantom Tac, Ether Tex, New Wave Style and New Wave Bottoms. Altogether, they produced several million shirts, pants and other garments a year.

The New Wave companies, according to their website, make clothing for several major North American and European retailers. Britain's Primark has acknowledged it was using a factory in Rana Plaza. It said in a statement Monday that it is providing emergency aid and will pay compensation to victims who worked for its supplier.

"Primark notes the fact that its supplier shared the building with those of other retailers. We are fully aware of our responsibility. We urge these other retailers to come forward and offer assistance," it said.

Canadian company Loblaw Inc., which also got its Joe Fresh clothing line made in Rana Plaza, said Monday it will ensure that victims and their families "receive benefits now and in the future."

Spokeswoman Julija Hunter said the company is still working out the details, but plans to deliver support "in the best and most meaningful way possible."

Wal-Mart said none of its clothing had been authorized to be made in the Rana Plaza facility, but it is investigating whether there was any unauthorized production.

___

Associated Press writers Julhas Alam in Dhaka and Cassandra Vinograd in London contributed to this report.

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