Apr 26 2013

NYTimes: Western Firms Feel Pressure as Toll Rises in Bangladesh

Newswire | Published 26 Apr 2013, 8:14 am | Comments Off on NYTimes: Western Firms Feel Pressure as Toll Rises in Bangladesh -

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DHAKA, Bangladesh — As the search for survivors continued on Friday in one of the worst manufacturing disasters in history, pointed questions were being raised about why a factory building in Bangladesh was not padlocked after terrified workers notified the police, government officials and a powerful garment industry group about cracks in the walls.

As the death toll neared 300, the owner of the collapsed building, the eight-story Rana Plaza, was in hiding, and the police and industry leaders were blaming him for offering false assurances to factory bosses that the structure was sound, leading to the decision to allow 3,000 workers return to their jobs.

Pressure continued to build on Western companies that had promised after a deadly fire in November to take steps to ensure the safety of Bangladeshi factories that make the goods the companies sell. Activists combing through the rubble in Savar, outside the capital, Dhaka, have already discovered labels and documents linking the factories to major European and American brands, like the Children’s Place, Benetton, Cato Fashions and Mango.

The PVH Corporation, the parent company of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, and Tchibo, a German retailer, have endorsed a plan in which Western retailers would finance fire safety efforts and structural upgrades in Bangladeshi factories — although they first want other companies to sign on.

Walmart has refused to join that effort. But in January, it announced that it would demand that factories quickly correct any safety violations and would dismiss any contractor that used unapproved or unsafe factories. Two weeks ago, Walmart pledged $1.8 million to establish a health and safety institute in Bangladesh to train 2,000 factory managers in fire safety.

On Thursday, the Bangladeshi authorities opened an investigation into the collapse, while the police filed negligence charges against the building’s owner, Sohel Rana, his father and the owners of four factories in the building. Bangladesh’s High Court also issued a summons for Mr. Rana, who is involved in local politics with the country’s ruling party, the Awami League. He has been ordered to appear in court on Tuesday.

The immediate question was why the garment factories on the upper floors of the Rana Plaza building were operating when the structure collapsed Wednesday morning. Industry leaders continued to point to Mr. Rana and what they said were his false assertions that the structure was safe. “Based on that, they ran the factories yesterday,” Mohammad Atiqul Islam, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, said in a telephone interview. He said his staff had told factory owners on Tuesday to keep the factories closed until the building was inspected. “We had very clearly told the owners not to open.”

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