DHAKA (Reuters) - Rescue officials in Bangladesh said on Tuesday they had given up hope of finding more survivors from a garment factory complex that collapsed killing hundreds, as the government came under pressure to do more to enforce building safety standards.
At least 390 people have been confirmed dead in what is just the latest incident to raise serious questions about worker safety and low wages in the poor South Asian country that relies on garments for 80 percent of its exports.
Representatives of major international garment buyers - some facing sharp criticism in their home markets for doing too little to safeguard the mostly female workers making their clothes - met industry representatives on Monday and agreed to form a joint panel to put together a new safety plan.
With no hope left of finding further survivors, heavy machinery has been brought in to clear the mass of concrete and debris from the site in the commercial suburb of Savar, about 30 km (20 miles) from the capital Dhaka.
But the operation remained agonizingly slow for the dozens of relatives still awaiting news of missing loved ones six days after the illegally constructed Rana Plaza building came crashing down as about 3,000 people worked inside.
“What’s the use of using heavy equipment if they cannot find the dead bodies?” asked a grief-stricken father who, like many others, has been waiting on the streets near the site hoping for information about his son, who worked in a garment factory.
As anger continued over the country’s worst industrial accident, the owner of the collapsed building was brought before a court in Dhaka on Monday, where lawyers and protesters chanted “hang him, hang him”.
About 20 people were injured on Tuesday as police fired teargas, rubber bullets and water cannon to disperse protesters in Savar calling for the death penalty for the owners of the building and factories.
Two Western retailers supplied by factories at Rana Plaza, Britain’s Primark and Canada’s Loblaw, have promised to compensate families of garment workers killed while making their clothes.
About 2,500 people have been rescued from the ruins of the building, which housed several factories on the upper floors, but hundreds remain unaccounted for.
Officials in Bangladesh have said the eight-storey complex had been built on swampy ground without the correct permits, and more than 3,000 workers - most of them young women - entered the building in the morning on Wednesday last week, despite warnings that it was structurally unsafe.
A bank and shops in the building closed after a jolt was felt and cracks were noticed on some pillars on Tuesday.
On Monday, representatives of about 45 companies including Gap Inc, H&M, Inditex, JC Penny, Marks & Spencer, Nike Inc, Primark, Tesco, Wal-Mart and Li & Fung met officials from the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association to discuss safety.
Some foreign buyers have said that whilst they can make efforts to ensure decent working conditions, it is up to the authorities to enforce building safety standards.
“There is a law, but due to lack of implementation and severe manpower shortages such unlawful buildings are being constructed,” said Roger Hubert, vice president of Li & Fung.
“They have substandard building plans, lack of fire safety, and other compliance issues.”
Eight people have been arrested - four factory bosses, two engineers, building owner Mohammed Sohel Rana and his father, Abdul Khalek. Police are looking for a fifth factory boss, Spanish citizen David Mayor, although it was unclear whether he was in Bangladesh at the time of the accident.
There were angry scenes as Rana, a local leader of the ruling Awami League’s youth front, was led into court on Monday wearing a helmet and bulletproof police jacket, witnesses said.
“Put the killer on the gallows,” one onlooker outside the court shouted. Rana, who was arrested on Sunday by the elite Rapid Action Battalion apparently trying to flee to India, was ordered to be held on remand for 15 days for interrogation.
Khalek, who officials said was named in documents as a legal owner of the Rana Plaza building, was arrested in Dhaka on Monday. Those being held face charges of faulty construction and causing unlawful death.
The High Court on Tuesday ordered the seizure of property belonging to Rana and four others.
The collapse was the third major industrial incident in five months in Bangladesh, the second-largest exporter of garments in the world behind China. In November, a fire at the Tazreen Fashion factory in a suburb of Dhaka killed 112 people.
The industry employs about 3.6 million people in Bangladesh, most of them women, some of whom earn as little as $38 a month.
Anger over the disaster has sparked days of protests and clashes. Many factories remained closed on Monday due to labor unrest and police used teargas to quell demonstrations.
The International Labour Organisation (ILO), an agency of the United Nations, said it was sending a high-level mission to Bangladesh in coming days.
“Horror and regret must translate into firm action,” said ILO Director-General Guy Ryder in a statement. “Action now can prevent further tragedy.”
Additional reporting by Sarah Young in London and Susan Taylor in Toronto; Writing by Alex Richardson; Editing by Robert Birsel