Retailers 'failing victims' a year after Bangladesh disaster

Western fashion brands faced pressure Thursday to increase help for the victims of the world's worst garment factory accident, as mass protests marked the one-year anniversary of the Bangladesh disaster that cost 1,138 lives.

Thousands of people, some wearing funeral shrouds, staged demonstrations at the site of the now-infamous Rana Plaza factory complex outside the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka, which collapsed last April 24 after a catastrophic structural failure.

Chanting slogans of "We want compensation!" and "Death to the culprits!" the demonstrators -- who included injured survivors and the families of the deceased -- marched to the ruins of the nine-storey building carrying flowers and wreaths.

Relatives of the 140 workers still unaccounted for also joined in, calling for the government to help find their bodies. They included toddlers, holding photos of their missing mothers.

"I want my daughter's dead body. At least it would give us some consolation," said crying mother Minu Begum as she held the photo of her missing daughter Sumi Begum, who worked at one of the Rana Plaza factories.

Global labour and rights groups marked the day by criticising the 29 Western retailers linked to the disaster, which include Spain's Mango, Italian brand Benetton and British budget fashion chain Primark.

"Brands are failing workers a second time," Ineke Zeldenrust from the Amsterdam-based Clean Clothes Campaign said on Thursday.

"First they failed to ensure the factories they bought from were safe, and now they are failing the survivors and the families of those who lost loved ones."

As well as the dead, more than 2,000 people were injured in a tragedy that put the spotlight on the lax safety standards and often abusive working conditions in the world's second-biggest clothing producer.

The disaster shamed Western brands into launching new safety inspections and pushed Bangladesh's government to increase wages and ensure the better enforcement of regulations.

But trade union group IndustriALL slammed retailers this week for making "woefully inadequate" contributions to a proposed $40-million fund set up to compensate the families of the dead and the injured.

Only $15 million has been deposited and the first payments of $640 for each of the survivors and families of the deceased were only made this week.

Others are angry at local authorities for the slow progress in identifying the 140 workers still missing since the collapse, while the owner of the building has yet to be charged by police.

"One year after Rana Plaza collapsed, far too many victims and their families are at serious risk of destitution," Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch said.

"International garment brands should be helping the injured and the dependants of dead workers who manufactured their clothes," he added.

After the backlash, nearly 200 brands formed two umbrella groups to organise a clean-up of Bangladesh's 3,500 garment factories, which form a $22-billion industry second only to China's in size.

They reject criticism that they have done too little.

"Our members alone paid $2.2 million into the trust fund," said Mesbah Rabin, the managing director of a the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. The group includes US retailers Walmart, Gap and Target.

"The brands are also paying for the costly inspection of the garment factories, which will eventually raise safety standards, boost export potential and improve Bangladesh's brand image that the country is a safe destination for sourcing apparel," he told AFP.

- 'Faults in almost all factories' -

Despite disagreements over who has ultimate responsibility for the victims -- Western retailers, their Bangladeshi subcontractors, or the government -- most observers credit the industry with making some progress.

Engineers hired by retailers have shut down 16 factories and ordered hundreds of others to upgrade. The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) closed another 23 plants.

According to the newly created Department of Inspection for Factories, at least 1,031 factories have since been inspected by retailers' groups and government officials.

"We have found faults in almost all the factories we've so far inspected," said Brad Loewen, chief inspector of a group of largely European retailers called the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh -- the second umbrella organisation.

Of the 400 plants the group has probed, some 90 percent lacked proper fire exits and had hazardous electrical wiring, Loewen told AFP.

The shutdowns and upgrades have resulted in thousands of job losses and hundreds of million of dollars of cancelled orders, according to the BGMEA.

But the industry continues to go from strength to strength despite the bad publicity and a wage hike for workers which was resisted by factory owners.

Garment shipments in March this year were 15 percent higher than in the month before the disaster last year, and minimum wages were raised to $68 a month on average in December from $38 previously.