NEW DELHI — Emergency workers in Bangladesh have rescued a woman who survived 17 days buried in the rubble of a collapsed garment factory complex, as the death toll from the disaster rose to more than 1,000.
Crowds erupted into cheers after the woman, known only to media outlets as Reshma, was pulled from the ruins Friday. Rescuers say she survived by finding reserves of water nearby. Emergency workers had earlier given up hope that they would find any more survivors from the accident near Dhaka.
The collapse of the Rana Plaza Building — eight-stories high and home to five garment factories is Bangladesh’s worst industrial accident. When it buckled more than two weeks ago, it crushed workers under a mass of concrete and bricks, making it difficult to identify many of them.
While the focus has remained on the Rana collapse, a second accident took place at another garment factory. A fire engulfed the lower floors of an 11-story factory making sweaters after it had shut Wednesday evening. The owner and several other people died in the blaze.
Officials said the building where the latest accident occurred did conform to building codes. Both accidents have further heightened concerns of safety in Bangladesh’s garment factories, which make apparel for many Western brands.
In recent days, the government has intensified inspections of buildings and asked 18 garment factories to shut down for failing to meet work and safety standards.
Kalpona Akter, with the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, has been fighting for better conditions for the 3.6 million Bangladeshis employed in the garment industry. She hopes that this time the government is serious about putting in place better workplace inspection mechanisms.
“After every fire accident or every collapse or every industrial accident, the government really comes with so many fake commitments, but this time we really want to see them to move,” she said. “It is more than high time for them to act now. These all deaths are preventable.”
With the accident making news across the world, the government and garment companies are under pressure to address the problems plaguing Bangladesh’s biggest manufacturing industry. Besides safety issues, they also include concerns over poor wages and labor rights.
Mustafizur Rahman with the independent Center for Policy Dialogue in Dhaka said it is imperative for the government to revamp the industry.
“Brand Bangladesh of course has taken a hit. But this time around there are concerted efforts to address many of the concerns…..workers safety, workers rights, building construction, all these things are now coming to the fore,” said Rahman. “Medium to long term impact will depend on what homework we are doing and whether we are doing it adequately. We are hoping that this time around lessons will be learnt.”
The government has blamed the Rana Plaza collapse on violation of building codes and use of shoddy construction materials. A preliminary inquiry says vibrations from four huge generators triggered the collapse.
The accident has prompted some criticism of Western retailers who source their clothes in Bangladesh. Walt Disney Company announced a week ago that it would pull out of five developing countries including Bangladesh, in part because of fatal accidents at factories.
However, there have been many calls asking Western retailers to take on a bigger role in improving working conditions in the industry instead of abandoning it.
Labor activist Akter, backs those voices.
“These days we are calling them [Western retailers] to sign legally binding fire and building safety agreements which ensure them to pay to do necessary intervention and repair for their sourcing factories and also it ensures that workers would have their voice in the improving process, workers should themselves tell them that, yesh, the factory they are working on, it is safe for them,” said Akter.
Bangladesh is the world’s second largest apparel supplier and the $20 billion garment industry is its biggest foreign exchange earner.