Rescuers were clawing through the rubble to free dozens of people in Savar, Bangladesh, after the collapse of an eight-storey building that housed garment factories, some of them suppliers to Loblaw Cos.' Joe Fresh and other Western brands.
The death toll rose to over 200 after an overnight search, officials said on Thursday, and the toll could climb because many people are still trapped inside. Thousands were injured, according to officials at the scene.
Loblaw promptly acknowledged its involvement in the plant, in a move that was praised by workers rights' advocates. The company expressed its condolences "to those affected by this tragedy" as it awaited an update on the situation from local authorities, its spokeswoman said in an e-mail.
The disaster, which comes on the heels of a factory fire less than five months ago that killed 112 people, touched off renewed calls for Western retailers and their suppliers to take a more active role in ensuring that safety standards are taken seriously.
But it also comes as retailers and their suppliers feel extreme pressure to keep costs down for budget-conscious Western consumers, who are drawn to Joe Fresh's $8 tank tops and $19 hoodies.
Loblaw wasn't alone to step up to the plate. Another company with Canadian connections to the plant is Primark, a major British clothing chain that is owned by an arm of the Weston family, which also controls Loblaw. Primark responded promptly on Wednesday in acknowledging that it produced garments in the collapsed factory.
"The company is shocked and deeply saddened by this appalling incident," Primark said in a statement posted on its website. Its ethical trade team is working to collect information, assess which communities the workers come from and provide support "where possible."
At the site of the tragedy, workers had complained about cracks in the structure before it came tumbling down, but were assured it was safe. Searchers cut holes in the jumbled mess of concrete with drills or their bare hands, passing water and flashlights to those pinned inside the building near Bangladesh's capital of Dhaka.
Workers said they had hesitated to go into the building on Wednesday morning because it had developed such large cracks a day earlier that it even drew the attention of local news channels.
Abdur Rahim, who worked on the fifth floor, said a factory manager gave assurances there was no problem, so employees went inside. "After about an hour or so, the building collapsed suddenly," Mr. Rahim told Associated Press. The next thing he remembered is regaining consciousness outside.
Bob Kirke, executive director of the Canadian Apparel Federation, said the Canadian government may want to demand countries such as Bangladesh "make meaningful improvements in working conditions" in exchange for continued duty-free entry of Bangladesh exports. The United States and EU are both doing this, he said.
Canada has a significant tariff concession for least-developed countries such as Bangladesh: an 18-per-cent duty advantage for apparel, that is among the most significant in the world, Mr. Kirke said.
Scott Nova, executive director of the Washington-based Worker Rights Consortium, praised Loblaw and Primark for coming out quickly and acknowledging its involvement in the collapsed factory.
"Loblaw deserves credit at least for being honest about being there," he said. "We've heard a lot of ducking and diving from most other buyers trying to minimize or deny their connection to this building."
But, he said, an even more important question "is what steps they're going to take going forward."
"It is one in a long series of mass fatalities in completely preventable factory disasters in factories in Bangladesh producing for Western brands and retailers," Mr. Nova said. "It is the product of the ongoing refusal of those brands and retailers to ensure that basic measures are taken to make their factories in that country minimally safe."
Loblaw spokeswoman Julija Hunter said it is committed to supporting the local authorities in Bangladesh and working with its supplier there to "understand how we may be able to assist them during this time."
Loblaw's vendor standards spell out "the standard requirements of working with us to ensure that products are being manufactured in a socially responsible way, and specifically prohibiting child harassment and abuse or forced labour; and ensuring fair pay and benefits and compliance with applicable health and safety regulations," she said. "We audit against these standards on a regular basis."
Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world's largest retailer, said it is sorry to learn of the tragic event.
"We are investigating across our global supply chain to see if a factory in this building was currently producing for Wal-Mart," company spokesman Keven Gardner added. " We remain committed and are actively engaged in promoting stronger safety measures and that work continues.
After the fire at the Tazreen Fashions factory in Dhaka in November, Wal-Mart said it was unaware that its private-label clothing was being made there and it had not authorized anyone to make its garments at the facility.
The fire gave rise to criticism that Wal-Mart should have been more aware of its supply chain. Since then, Wal-Mart has been taking a harder look at what it can do to monitor safety at the low-cost factories that produce its goods.
Among the other textile businesses in the collapsed building were Phantom Apparels Ltd., New Wave Style Ltd., New Wave Bottoms Ltd. and New Wave Brothers Ltd., which make clothing for major brands including The Children's Place, Dress Barn and The Cato Corp.
Jane Singer, a spokeswoman for The Children's Place, said "while one of the garment factories located in the building complex has produced apparel for The Children's Place, none of our product was in production at the time of this accident."
Dress Barn said that to its knowledge, it had "not purchased any clothing from that facility since 2010. We work with suppliers around the world to manufacture our clothing, and have a supply-chain transparency program to protect the rights of workers and their safety."
Officials at The Cato Corp. couldn't be immediately reached for comment.
The head of a Canadian sportswear firm that sources apparel from Bangladesh said he wasn't aware of any work that was being done for his company at the factory.
Will Andrew, president of Richmond Hill, Ont.-based Trimark Sportswear Group said the company carefully does safety, health and environmental monitoring at the factories in Bangladesh where its products are being made. "We're not running production right now. It's mostly in December and January, for the spring."
Trimark is one of several buyers mentioned on the website of New Wave group.
With reports from Reuters and Associated Press