By CHRIS BLAKE and FARID HOSSAIN
Army personnel watch as workers toil in the collapsed garment factory building, Tuesday, April 30, 2013 in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh. Emergency workers hauling large concrete slabs from a collapsed 8-story building said Tuesday they expect to find many dead bodies when they reach the ground floor, indicating the death toll will be far more than the official 386. One estimate said it could be as high as 1,400. The illegally constructed, 8-story Rana Plaza collapsed on the morning of April 24, bringing down the five garment factories inside.(AP Photo/Wong Maye-E)
JURAIN, Bangladesh (AP) — Dozens of Bangladeshi garment workers, their bodies too battered or decomposed to be identified, were buried in a mass funeral Wednesday, a week after the eight-story building they worked in toppled down, killing at least 410 people and injuring thousands.
Hundreds attended the traditional Muslim funeral and many more looked on from the roofs of nearby buildings as the bodies, rotting in the spring heat, were brought to the graveyard on the back of flatbed trucks.
Onlookers covered their noses. One woman rushed through the crowd to the back of a truck wailing that one of the bodies was her sister’s. She begged to take it as family members held on to her to keep her from collapsing.
Local men and boys recited a traditional Muslim prayer for the dead. Then, 34 bodies were unloaded and placed in the graves.
Workers at the cemetery have dug several long rows of graves as authorities expect to bury scores more unidentified bodies in the coming days.
“I would not have to take part in this if the government acted more responsibly,” said Rasel Islam, a 32-year-old man who attended the burial.
Five garment factories were housed in the illegally constructed Rana Plaza building that collapsed April 24, five months after a fire killed 112 people at another clothing factory. The tragedies exposed the unsafe conditions plaguing Bangladesh’s $20 billion-a-year garment industry, which supplies many European and American retailers.
At the Vatican, Pope Francis said he was shocked by a headline about the building collapse that said some of the workers were living on 38 euros a month.
“This was the payment of these people who have died … and this is called ‘slave labor,'” he said. Vatican Radio said the pope made the remarks during a private Mass at the Vatican.
EU officials said they are considering action including changes to Bangladesh’s duty-free and quota-free access to the giant EU market to “incentivize” responsible management of the nation’s garment industry. Catherine Ashton, the EU’s foreign affairs chief, and its trade commissioner, Karel De Gucht, called in a statement for Bangladesh authorities to act immediately to ensure factories comply with international labor standards.
Pressure built inside Bangladesh as well, as a raucous May Day procession of workers on foot, pickup trucks and motorcycles wound its way through central Dhaka demanding safe working conditions and capital punishment for the building’s owner. They waved the national flag and banners, beat drums and chanted “Direct action!” and “Death penalty!”
From a loudspeaker on the back of a truck, a participant spoke for the group: “My brother has died. My sister has died. Their blood will not be valueless.”
The death toll from the collapse passed 400 Wednesday, with a total of 410 people confirmed dead so far, police said.
Rescue workers expect the death toll to rise, because they believe many bodies are still buried on the ground level of the building.
There is confusion over how many people remain missing.
Zillur Rahman Chowdhury, a Dhaka district administrator, said so far 149 people have been listed missing. A police official, Aminur Rahman, said police have recorded up to 1,300 names as missing, but he cautioned that many may be duplicates. “We will now have to screen the names by computer to find the actual number,” he said.
The owner of the building, Mohammed Sohel Rana, is under arrest and expected to be charged with negligence, illegal construction and forcing workers to join work, which is punishable by a maximum of seven years in jail. Authorities have not said if more serious crimes will be added.
Protesters Wednesday demanded capital punishment for Rana, 38, a small-time political operative with the ruling Awami League party.
“I want the death penalty for the owner of the building. We want regular salaries, raises and absolutely we want better safety in our factories,” said Mongidul Islam Rana, 18, who works in a different garment factory.
The Bangladesh High Court has ordered the government to confiscate Rana’s property and freeze the assets of the owners of the factories in Rana Plaza so the money can be used to pay the salaries of their workers.
Rana had permission to build five stories but added three more illegally. When huge cracks appeared in the building a day before its collapse, police ordered an evacuation, but Rana told tenants it was safe. The next day, a bank and some shops refused to open but factory managers told their workers to go back in. Hours later the building came down in a heap of concrete.
Rescuers estimate the building turned into 600 tons of rubble, of which 350 tons have been removed.
Anxious relatives were still looking for their missing loved ones. Kulsum, who uses one name, was searching for her husband, holding his photograph among several hundred people at a nearby schoolyard.
“My husband was inside the building on the fifth floor,” Kulsum said. “I haven’t found him. Neither alive nor dead.”
The November fire brought widespread pledges to improve worker safety in Bangladesh, but very little has changed.
“I think it is a wakeup call for the nation, a wakeup call for the industry and for the trade unions,” said Shirin Akter, founding president of Karmojibi Nari, a Dhaka-based group that lobbies for the rights of women in the workplace.
Among the garment makers in the building were Phantom Apparels, Phantom Tac, Ether Tex, New Wave Style and New Wave Bottoms. Altogether, they produced several million shirts, pants and other garments a year.
Hossain contributed from Dhaka.