Hope fades for trapped workers in Bangladesh factory

DHAKA — Special to The Globe and Mail

Bangladeshi people gather as rescuers look for survivors and victims at the site of a building that collapsed Wednesday in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh on Thursday. The death toll has risen to at least 260 people after a huge section of an eight-storey building that housed several garment factories splintered into a pile of concrete. (A.M. Ahad/AP)

Within an hour of Sofura Begum’s arrival at her job at Phantom Apparels, in the Rana Plaza on the outskirts of Dhaka, the building collapsed around her.

A loud sound overwhelmed her and the portion of the third floor where she was working gave way. She fell to the second level and was pinned under a sewing machine and debris. The 30-year-old divorced mother of two remained trapped for 27 hours before being rescued.

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As of Friday morning, the death toll from Wednesday’s catastrophe in Bangladesh had reached at least 300 people.

“It was all dark and dusty. I could not move a bit for hours as the machine and rubble stranded me down there,” Ms. Sofura said. “I heard people talking around me as many other workers were trapped there. I was awake all the time and was praying so that I can see my children again.”

Ms. Sofura moved to Dhaka to work in the garment sector, hoping to support her children in Bogra, 300 kilometres away.

She said she was afraid to go in to work before the collapse, as cracks developed in the building on Tuesday afternoon.

“But the manager put pressure on us, saying they had their deadlines for shipments,” said Ms. Sofura, who earns less than $43 a month. Due two months of salary from her employers, she could not pay her rent or grocery bills.

Located in Savar, 25 kilometres from the capital, the eight-storey building housed factories that made clothes for international brands, including Canada’s Joe Fresh. According to one estimate, there were 3,122 workers inside during the collapse.

Rana Plaza, which was built in 2010, also housed a shopping mall and a bank branch. Dow Jones Newswires reported it was constructed without proper permits on unstable land, according to Dhaka city officials.

A fire at the Tazreen Fashion garment factory on the outskirst of Dhaka last November killed more than 100 people, alerting consumers abroad to the deplorable working conditions in the country’s textile industry. Though rescuers at Rana Plaza – comprised of local residents, workers, firefighters and law-enforcement officials – have freed around 1,400 workers from the debris of the collapsed building, many bodies are still visible from outside. “At the moment our priority is rescuing alive workers first,” searcher Babul Mia said.

But hopes for the trapped workers are fading, with rescuers saying no one could survive more than 72 hours.

The government’s rescue team will conduct searches as long as bodies remain buried under the debris, a senior military official told a press conference Thursday.

The atmosphere around the Savar area was thick with the stench of corpses Thursday, but hundreds of people – friends, families and colleagues – waited for hours, with photographs in hand, looking for missing workers.

Molina Begum, a garment worker at another factory, rushed to the site of the accident and has not gone back home since Wednesday morning. Her husband, who began working at Rana Plaza just 10 days ago, remains missing.

Rafik Mia came to Savar from Rangpur, a district from the northern region, Thursday morning – two of his three sons are missing.

Several workers who escaped unhurt told the media that the owners of their garment factories forced them to work Wednesday morning, despite their fears about the building’s safety.

Home Minister Muhiuddin Khan Alamgir has said legal action would be taken against Savar’s local administrator, Kabir Hossain, for his unauthorized certification of the building in question.

As a crack developed the day before, Mr. Kabir visited Rana Plaza in the afternoon and told journalists there was no danger of collapse.

Two days after the accident, several government agencies, including the regulatory authorities for multistoried buildings, filed cases against the owner, Sohel Rana, who has gone into hiding. There are at least seven cases against him.

The Bangladeshi government observed a national mourning day on Thursday.

Cheap clothing

The estimated amount spent per person in 2011-12 on clothing from Bangladesh, not including retail markup. Figures are in U.S. dollars.

  • Germany: $41.55
  • United Kingdom: $33.95
  • Canada: $25.37
  • Spain: $23.20
  • France: $19.44
  • United States: $14.53

Sources: Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, World Bank