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Accusations and anger after deadly factory collapse

Grim search for missing loved ones continues in Dhaka

Accusations and anger after deadly factory collapse
Families of missing workers hold placards and grieve outside a high school near the collapsed Rana Plaza site reporter, Savar

May 3, 2013

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His blurry reddish eyes, week-old beard and unclean clothes show Mannan Sheikh is a man all but overcome by grief.

The last nine days have been the toughest period of his 50 years of life.

He traveled several hundred kilometers from his home in northwestern Rajshahi district, where his sick wife lay bed-ridden. He ate little during the long journey and slept in the open air.

His toil was the product of diminishing hopes that he would find his only son, a garment worker who went missing on April 24 when the eight-story Rana Plaza – a poorly constructed complex where 3,500 workers stitched clothes for leading American and European brands – collapsed.

The latest death toll stands at 622, sparking urgent calls for reform in the garment sector, with some even speculating that international brands could face pressure to pull up stakes.

But Mannan simply wants to find his son.

“All these days I’ve run form one place to another, from the accident site to dozens of hospitals, searching in vain for my son,” Mannan said in the grounds of Adhar Chandra High School near the wreckage of Rana Plaza.

Its collapse also left hundreds of workers injured, while 2,500 employees were rescued from the rubble. But hundreds more – including Mannan’s son – remain unaccounted for.

“We are poor people and couldn’t pay for his education. He came here to help the family but we never thought he would meet with such tragedy,” said Mannan.    

Adhar Chandra High School, which this year celebrated the centenary of its founding, now marks a darker history. Since the building collapse, it has been used as a holding area for scores of corpses pulled from the twisted steel and concrete debris, and awaiting identification.

Relatives of the hundreds of missing workers from all over the country have thronged the school grounds day and night, holding signs and laminated posters of their missing family members.

Posters of the missing line the school gate outside, while inside the compound thick dust shrouds the grounds and families grieve for their loved ones amid the increasingly acrid smell of decomposing flesh.

Every time an ambulance arrives with newly discovered remains, hundreds rush to the vehicle. More than a week has passed since the collapse, and most of the remains are beyond visual recognition.

Authorities on Tuesday conducted a mass burial of 32 unclaimed bodies.

Desperate to know the whereabouts of the missing, some family members have become impatient and have started believing rumors that the authorities have been concealing the actual number of dead.

“Hundreds of people are still missing – perhaps not less than 1,000 – but nobody seems to pay heed to our agony,” Mannan said.

“While they were alive, the owners and the government cared too little for them. After death they are facing neglect as well.”

The rumors of government conspiracy have been fuelled in part by a political backlash against the ruling party in the wake of the tragedy.

At a political gathering on Wednesday, the main opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party head Khaleda Zia accused the Awami League-led government of hiding the actual death toll in an effort to save face.

“As many as 900 people are still missing. What happened to them? The government is playing politics over dead bodies,” Zia claimed.

But the head of rescue operations, Major General Hassan Suhrawardy, dismissed such rumors during a press conference on Thursday.

“We are conducting operations with utmost sincerity. Accusations of the concealment of dead bodies are regrettable and frustrating.”

Police have detained building owner Sohel Rana and factory managers, but Mannan and Hena remain unconvinced that justice will be done.

“Every time accidents take place, owners don’t get punished. The government must set an example by hanging them, making them suffer like us. And also all government offices that permitted the building to be constructed and operated must be punished as well,” Hena Begum said.

Fears are running high among various quarters that global retailers might rethink sourcing their goods from the country.

Disney announced on Thursday that it would end its apparel production in Bangladesh. If other manufacturers do the same, the impact could be substantial for the garment sector, which accounts for 80 percent of foreign export income (about US$20 billion) and employs some 5 million workers.

“The companies’ exodus would be deadly for Bangladesh and it is no solution to the problems. Instead, they can play a vital role in pressing the factory owners and the government to ensuring proper safety standards,” said Jafrul Hasan, a Dhaka-based labor expert and lawyer.

Hena said that foreign companies should play just such a role to promote change.

“The buyers should create pressure to construct factories accordingly or make just single-floor factories to avoid accidents,” Hena added.

Meanwhile, an architect who worked on designing the building insisted that it was never intended to be anything other than a shopping mall, with three floors of shops and two of offices. He claimed not to know how three further floors were built on top of the original design.

He added that it was never designed to bear the load of heavy industrial equiopment, especially the large generators which were turned on just before the building collapsed. 

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