UN urges Bangladesh to close unsafe factories

May 4, 2013 3:20 pm


A woman holds up a portrait of her missing relative, believed to be trapped in the rubble of the collapsed factory building in Savar, on the outskirts of Dhaka/AFP
A woman holds up a portrait of her missing relative, believed to be trapped in the rubble of the collapsed factory building in Savar, on the outskirts of Dhaka/AFP
DHAKA, May 4 – The UN’s labour agency urged Bangladesh to close unsafe factories as search teams on Saturday pulled more bodies from the wreckage of the nation’s worst industrial disaster, pushing the death toll to at least 550.

The collapse of the eight-storey garment factory complex outside Dhaka last week was the latest in a string of catastrophes to befall the $20 billion textile industry, which accounts for 80 percent of Bangladesh’s exports.

Action is needed to ensure such “avoidable accidents” that tarnish the image of Bangladesh’s industrial image never recur, said Gilbert Houngbo, field operations deputy director-general at the International Labour Organization (ILO).

The government must “make sure all factories are inspected and any remedial action necessary is put in place,” Houngbo told AFP.

“Some factories (that cannot be repaired) may have to close down,” said the former prime minister of the West African nation Togo.

His words came as bulldozers and cranes clawed away for an 11th day at the mountain of rubble at the plant site to uncover more bodies, as distraught onlookers clutched photographs of missing relatives.

Clerics recited passages from the Koran through loudspeakers, seeking blessings for the dead.

Army spokesman Major Sazzad Hossain told AFP the death toll “now stands at 550” and that more bodies have been spotted between the pancaked floors.

A senior government official reiterated pledges to “inspect all garment factory buildings” as Bangladesh faces pressure from Western brands to take “credible” safety steps to clean up an industry with a shocking accident record.

“We’ve adopted a series of measures to make sure this kind of disaster never happens again,” commerce secretary Mahbub Ahmed told AFP.

The government made a similar announcement after a devastating fire swept a garment factory in November last year, killing 111 workers, but the subsequent inspections were widely derided as insufficient.

Ahmed urged the buyers and top trade partners such as the European Union, where nearly 60 percent of Bangladesh’s apparel are shipped, not to shun Dhaka’s products, saying it would hurt the country’s 60 million poor.

“If anyone takes decision to stop importing from Bangladesh, it’ll eventually hurt the millions of garment workers,” he said. The 4,500 garment factories employ over three million workers, at least 80 percent of whom are women.

Impoverished Bangladesh, with its population of 153 million, has just 50 plant inspectors to ensure the safety of its tens of thousands of factories.

A government investigator blamed the cave-in on vibrations from four huge illegal generators on the complex’s top floors.

The vibrations created by the generators “together with the vibration of thousands of sewing machines triggered the collapse” of the building which “sandwiched into one floor”, Main Uddin Khandaker said late Friday.

The building was constructed “for commercial use”, not as a factory, and it could not withstand the vibrations because the owner had used substandard materials, he said.

Asked if global retailers were also to blame for poor safety, the ILO official replied, “Everybody wants to buy the highest quality at the lowest price”.

“You shouldn’t be doing business with a company somewhere in Bangladesh if you know very well it is abusing or not complying with national laws,” said Houngbo.

He called for a full dialogue engaging workers, owners and the government, ensuring freedom of association of workers and their right to collective bargaining to improve safety standards.

Although on paper Bangladesh’s three million garment workers enjoy collective bargaining rights, only a few factories allow trade unions.

Last April, top labour leader Aminul Islam was killed amid reports he had been targeted by a national security agency. No one has ever been prosecuted for his murder.


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