Tens of thousands of Bangladeshis joined May Day protests yesterday to demand the execution of textile bosses over the collapse of a factory complex, as rescuers warned that the final death toll could be more than 500.
Despite calls by the prime minister for “cool heads,” tensions over the country’s deadliest industrial disaster showed little sign of abating, and there were fears of more violence and vandalism at textile mills.
Workers holding red banners and flags chanted: “Hang the killers, hang the factory owners,” as they took to the streets of Dhaka at the start of a series of nationwide demonstrations during the public holiday.
Police put the number of protesters at the main rally in Dhaka at more than 20,000, and there were smaller-scale protests elsewhere in the capital and in other cities.
Kamrul Anam, one of the leaders of the Bangladesh Textile and Garments Workers League, said the demonstrators were angry at “the murder” of their colleagues in the disaster at Savar on the outskirts of Dhaka on Wednesday last week.
“We want the severest punishment possible for those responsible for this tragedy,” he said.
“Enough is enough,” said Liakot Khan, another protester taking part in the Dhaka rally, which echoed to the sound of drums and horns.
“The government should hang the proprietor and the factory owners. We want justice for these murders,” he said.
The Bangladesh government is also facing foreign pressure to take credible moves to raise safety standards in the garment industry, with the collapse at the Rana Plaza factory complex the latest in a series of deadly disasters.
The EU said late on Tuesday that it would look at steps to promote better practices in a sector that depends on Western brands, with clothes from retailers Primark, Benetton and Mango produced recently at the site.
Workers’ rights campaigners say Western retailers who source their clothing to Bangladesh must also take a share of the blame.
With bulldozers busy clawing through the ruins of the eight-story complex, Bangladesh military spokesman Mir Rabbi said that the confirmed death toll now stood at 402.
An army general also told reporters that local officials had drawn up a list of 149 people who are still unaccounted for.
Eight people have so far been arrested and charged with “death by negligence” over the collapse of the eight-story building which housed five separate garment factories.
Those charged have had to wear bulletproof vests at their court appearances.
Many of the country’s 4,500 garment factories have been closed since Wednesday last week, a major blow for the Bangladeshi economy, which is powered in large part by the US$20 billion industry.
Speaking in parliament on Tuesday night, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina urged employees to return to work and criticized reported attacks on some factories.
“I would like to tell the workers to keep their head cool, keep mills and factories operative, otherwise you will end up losing your jobs,” she said.