More Than 87 Dead and Toll Could Rise At Bangladesh Garment Factory

Workers Ordered Into Factory Before Deadly Collapse, Labor Group Says

April 24, 2013, 12:33 PM

April 24, 2013— -- An eight-story building that housed four garment factories in the capital city of Bangladesh collapsed overnight, killing at least 87 workers, and adding to a rising death toll in a country where well-known American retailers pay dirt-poor wages to make clothing in factories with few of the basic safeguards that are standard in most of the developed world.

"It's a total disaster," said Charles Kernaghan, director of the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, who has a team on the ground in Dhaka interviewing survivors.

Kernaghan he has been told that some 2,500 workers who work at the four factories in the building refused to enter the building on Monday when they saw large cracks forming along the structure's exterior.

At 8 a.m. on Tuesday, factory owners allegedly told workers they would not be paid if they did not return to the factories and begin working, according to Kernaghan. The building collapsed about an hour later.

The death toll is still unclear. Kernaghan said he is aware that about 600 workers escaped the rubble unharmed.

The building collapse comes on the heels of a string of deadly factory fires in Bangladesh, including one that killed 112 garment workers five months ago. In December 2010, more than two dozen workers died in a Bangladesh factory that was making clothes for a range of U.S. brands, including Tommy Hilfiger.

In an ABC News investigative report on the fire that aired on World News and Nightline, Hilfiger and the CEO of parent company PVH, Emanuel Chirico, pledged to lead an effort to improve factory working conditions in Bangladesh.

"The death toll in today's factory building collapse in Bangladesh stands near 100, the latest in the endless parade of senseless deaths in garment factories producing for Western brands and retailers," Nova said.

Nova said he has reviewed production documents, which he provided to ABC News, that appear to show the retailer Benetton sourced clothing at the factory. The retailer has disputed this in a statement sent to ABC News.

"While we are working to verify the authenticity of the document you sent us, I am to confirm that these factories are not currently suppliers of Benetton Group or of any of his brands," the statement said.

Luca Biondolillo, head of Benetton Group Media and Communication Department, told ABC News he was "absolutely certain that none of these companies are currently suppliers of ours."He said he has searched through records of the last 10 years and so far they indicate no work with the factories since at least 2009.

Nova's group has gathered documentation on a number of other stores that he believes had ties to the factory. Dress Barn appears on a customer list on the web site of New Wave Style, another garment factory that was based in the collapsed building.

Dress Barn's president Jeffrey Gerstel told ABC News that his company had previously done business there, but hasn't been associated with the factory since 2010. "We work very hard with our factories and suppliers to maintain safety," he said.

Documents recovered at the site also included "spec sheets" for a clothing retailer called Mango. Mango's PR department issued a statement that they were in conversation with the factory to produce a test production.

And customs records indicates shipments from the building to a company called Cato Fashions, a North Carolina-based women's clothing retailer.

Cato Corporation spokesman John Howe told ABC News the company was surprised to see their name associated with this incident. They are currently investigating to confirm if their contracted vendor was present at the factory. Howe said in a statement that the company extends its "deepest sympathies to the families."

Nova also said the Ether Tex web site listed Wal-Mart as a customer, though the web site was down Wednesday and that could not be confirmed.

Wal-Mart told ABC News it is still unsure if clothing made for its stores were made in the Bangladesh factory.

"We are sorry to learn of this tragic event," said Kevin Gardner, a Wal-Mart spokesman. "We are investigating across our global supply chain to see if a factory in this building was currently producing for Wal-Mart. We remain committed and are actively engaged in promoting stronger safety measures and that work continues."