Last updated: April 25, 2013 2:36 pm

Bangladesh mourns as factory toll hits 228

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People mourn in front of the remains of their relatives, who died inside the rubble of the collapsed Rana Plaza building, in Savar©Reuters

Bangladesh was observing a day of national mourning on Thursday, as rescue workers searched through the rubble of a collapsed garment factory building in a hunt for survivors among the hundreds of people feared inside.

The eight-storey Rana Plaza, which housed at least four garment factories producing clothing for leading brands including Primark, collapsed on Wednesday morning, with thousands of workers inside.

The official death toll had risen to 228 by Thursday evening, with 1,000 people injured, many critically. But many hundreds of people are still trapped inside, and feared dead.

As anger over the tragedy spread, furious garment workers engaged in wildcat strikes, disrupting work at many factories across the capital city.

Amid the rubble, rescue workers, working with limited equipment and no protective clothing, heard cries for help, water and air from desperate survivors buried beneath the concrete. Thousands of relatives of those trapped inside gathered at the site, weeping and pleading for help.

The Bangladeshi Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association said that as many as 3,000 people were in the building at the time of the collapse, though it remains unclear how many of those have been accounted for.

The association said the implosion of the building appeared to be the worst disaster in the history of Bangladesh’s garment industry, which currently exports $19bn of clothing every year, mostly to leading western brands.

Among the companies housed in the building were New Wave Style, New Wave Bottoms and Ether Tex, whose websites said their leading buyers included Walmart, Benetton, Mango, Primark and The Children’s Place.

Primark has confirmed that one of its suppliers was located in the building and said it was “shocked and deeply saddened by this appalling incident” while Walmart says it is trying to determine whether one of the factories was currently producing for the company.

However, Spain’s Mango, whose labels and documents were found inside the building, denied that it used any of the affected companies as suppliers, though it also emailed a statement to the Associated Press saying that it had had conversations with one of the firms about producing a batch of test products.

Benetton also issued a statement denying that any of the companies were current suppliers.

The collapse of the building comes just five months after a devastating fire ripped through Tazreen Fashions, a factory producing clothes for Walmart, killing at least 117 people.

The latest tragedy is raising fresh questions about basic safety and management practices in Bangladesh’s garment industry, and whether any lessons have been learnt since last November’s fire.

During the Tazreen Fashion fire, managers and security guards prevented workers from fleeing even after they started to panic over smoke and fire alarms, while survivors of Wednesday’s building collapse say they were forced back to the production lines even after visible cracks suddenly appeared in the building.

Local Bangladeshi authorities say Rana Plaza was owned by Muhammed Sohel Rana, a powerful local politician affiliated with the ruling Awami League of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed.

Police said the owners only had approval for a five-storey building but had added another three storeys “illegally” and would be charged with negligence.

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