Bangladesh Shuts Down Factories as Death Toll Tops 800; Benetton Confirms Participation in Rubble

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By Esther Tanquintic-Misa | May 9, 2013 12:26 PM EST

Factories of at least 18 garment makers in two cities in Bangladesh have been ordered to shut down as the death toll from the April collapse of a building rose steadily, now reaching 804.

This, as clothes retailer Benetton confirmed it had indeed outsourced part of its jobs to a supplier implicated in the rubble.

Sixteen of the closed factories were located in Dhaka while the other two were in Chittagong. Abdul Latif Siddique, Bangladeshi textile minister, told reporters that more plants would be shut down in the coming days as part of strict new measures to ensure safety as well as compliance to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to give safety "the highest consideration."

"We'll ensure ILO standards in terms of compliance," Mr Siddique said, as he pointed out his panel is set to inspect the country's entire 4,500 garment factories in an effort to avoid fresh disasters.

"We have seen that those who claim to be the best compliant factories in Bangladesh have not fully abided by building regulations."

The Bangladeshi government vowed to carry out the measures amid fears Western garment firms might shy off from the country and look to other countries to create their goods.

But Biagio Chiarolanza, chief executive of Benetton, believed otherwise.

"It's not the solution to go outside from Bangladesh or to think in the future we can leave Bangladesh," Mr Chiarolanza told the Huffington Post. "I spent some period of my life in this part of the world, and I believe - I really believe - Benetton and other international brands can help these countries improve their condition. But we need a safe and happy working environment and we need to have better conditions."

Moreover, Bangladesh, he said, is the best place to manufacture T-shirts as well as other simple items because of its proximity to large Asian markets, such as China.

On Thursday, in a reversal to the company's first statement released after the collapse, Mr Chiarolanza admitted Benetton had indeed facilitated the production of a small order of shirts of about 200,000 pieces from a manufacturer identified as New Wave Style which operated inside the plant.

"The New Wave company, at the time of the tragic disaster, was not one of our suppliers, but one of our direct Indian suppliers had subcontracted two orders," Mr Chiarolanza explained.

He went on to say that their Indian supplier had issues fulfilling orders and meeting production targets, and thus relocated a portion of its work to several manufacturers located in Bangladesh, one of which was New Wave.

After the shirts were made inside the collapsed building, they were shipped back to the Indian supplier and then circulated through Benetton's "entire distribution network," Mr Chiarolanza said.

But Benetton had stopped giving production orders to New Wave a month before the deadly collapse, due to its failure to meet "strict" quality and efficiency standards.

And since it worked with the supplier for only a short period of time, Mr Chiarolanza admitted the company no longer pursued to conduct a social audit on New Wave, one that will look on the manufacturer's labor conditions and workplace safety.

Benetton likewise said that according to documentation provided by local Bangladeshi government agencies, the Rana Plaza building was constructed with appropriate safety permits.

Authorities conducting retrieval operations expect the death toll to further rise in the coming days, possibly hitting a thousand or more.

"We're expecting to find some bodies because we still haven't reached the bottom. We've finished around 70 per cent of the job," Brigadier General Siddiqul Alam Sikder told AFP. On the time the building collapsed on April 24, on shift were more than 3,000 garment workers making clothes for mostly Western retailers such as Britain's Primark and the Spanish label Mango.

At least 2,437 people have been pulled out from the ruins.

Retrieval operations from the rubble at Rana Plaza will continue for at least another week.

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