Bangladeshi police yesterday battled to control huge crowds of garment workers angrily protesting the death of more than 300 colleagues in a collapsed building, as rescue efforts stretched into a third day.
Police fired teargas and rubber bullets at the workers — who sew clothes for Western brands for as little as US$37 a month — as they blockaded roads, and attacked factories and buses in textile-making districts around Dhaka.
“The situation is very volatile. Hundreds of thousands of workers have joined the protests,” said M. Asaduzzaman, an officer in the police control room in manufacturing hub Gazipur.
The violence came as the death toll topped 300 at the scene of the accident in Savar town, on the capital’s outskirts where the eight-story Rana Plaza building imploded on Wednesday morning, trapping thousands of workers.
The accident has prompted new accusations from activists that Western clothing companies place profit before safety by sourcing their products from Bangladesh, despite its shocking track record of deadly disasters.
National fire service chief Ahmed Ali said that rescuers were now “racing against time” to find remaining survivors, as army spokesman Shahinul Islam said the death toll had reached 304.
More than 2,300 people have been rescued alive since Wednesday, Islam added.
The overnight rescue of 45 people provided some hope to the thousands of anguished relatives who remain huddled at the disaster site, but an intense stench of decomposition suggested many more bodies remain trapped in the rubble.
With many of the country’s 4,500 factories already shut due to protests and fears of damage, manufacturers declared today a holiday and trade unions called for a strike tomorrow to demand better working conditions.
Widespread anger has been fueled by revelations that factory bosses forced workers to return to the building on Wednesday despite cracks appearing in the building the day before.
At the disaster scene, exhausted teams of soldiers, firefighters and volunteers worked through the mountain of mangled concrete and steel for a third day after staying on the job for a second straight night. Amid frustration about the slow pace of progress, at one point thousands of relatives burst onto the disaster site, prompting police to fire teargas to disperse the crowd.
At the nearby Enam Medical College Hospital, doctors were struggling to treat the 1,200 people admitted since Wednesday morning, many with missing limbs or with such bad injuries that they required amputations.