Bangladesh building survivors protest as toll hits 740

DHAKA (AFP) - Hundreds of survivors of Bangladesh's worst industrial disaster blocked a main highway to demand wages on Tuesday as the death toll from the collapse of a nine-storey building hit 740, officials said.

More than 3,000 garment workers were on shift at the Rana Plaza complex at the time of the collapse on the morning of April 24, making clothing for Western retailers such as Britain's Primark and the Spanish label Mango.

Many of the staff were earning only around US$38 (S$47) a month, a salary condemned as "slave labour" by Pope Francis.

But with work having come to a complete halt, the employees are now demanding payment from factory owners, both for their wages and as compensation for injuries suffered when the complex caved in.

While employers promised that money was on its way, survivors said they had still to receive any cash.

Police said around 400 survivors blocked a highway connecting the capital with the country's south and south-west on Tuesday morning by staging a sit-down protest.

The workers were chanting slogans, demanding "unpaid salaries and compensation", local police chief M. Asaduzzaman told AFP.

Shahidullah Azim, a vice-president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, told AFP on Tuesday afternoon that the group would start paying out money to the 3,400 workers or their beneficiaries in a matter of hours.

But a union a leader said none of about 2,000 workers and their families gathered at an army camp near the disaster site were paid on Tuesday because "they were offered less than their dues".

"The workers and their families stood there for hours. But later they held a protest by blocking a highway at about 6.30pm (8.30pm Singapore time)," Mohammad Ibrahim told AFP, adding authorities had promised to disburse the money on Wednesday.

Traffic was briefly disrupted on the same road as in the earlier protest on Tuesday.

Western retailers whose brands were being made at Rana Plaza have also promised to compensate the families of those who died.

The wage protest came as the army revealed that dozens more bodies had been pulled from the rubble.

Army spokesman Major Julfiker Ali told AFP the number of bodies recovered "stands at 740" and warned the toll could rise further as the recovery teams had more three more floors to clear.

Authorities say 2,437 people were rescued alive from the ruins of the building, which housed a total of five garment factories.

Efforts to identify the victims are being hampered by the decomposition of bodies. Recovery workers, who are drawn from the ranks of the army and fire service, have to wear masks and use air freshener.

Fearful that Western brand names may turn their back on Bangladesh, the government announced a new high-level panel on Monday to inspect thousands of garment factories for building flaws.

The government made a similar announcement after a devastating fire swept through a garment factory in November last year, killing 111 workers, but subsequent inspections were widely derided as insufficient.

A preliminary government probe has blamed vibrations from giant generators combined with the vibrations of sewing machines for the building's collapse.

Police have arrested 12 people including the complex's proprietor, Sohel Rana, and four garment factory owners for forcing people to work on the day of the accident, even though cracks appeared in the structure the previous day.

Factory workers have held protests calling for tough punishment for those responsible and stronger safety regulations.

Bangladesh is the world's second-largest garment exporter after China. The industry accounts for more than 40 per cent of its industrial workforce and 80 per cent of the nation's exports.

Even before the latest disaster, the garment industry was struggling from the impact of a series of strikes as part of an ongoing battle between Islamist hardliners and police in the officially secular Muslim-majority nation.