Death Toll Surges at Bangladesh Garment Factory Collapse

PHOTO: A Bangladeshi woman survivor is lifted out of the rubble by rescuers on April 25, 2013 at the site of a building that collapsed on April 24, 2013 in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh.
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The reported death toll from a Bangladesh building collapse climbed over 220 today with scores of garment workers believed to be missing as rescue crews pulled more bodies from the rubble.

There were reports this morning that rescuers have pulled 40 people out alive from the rubble of the eight-story structure, which had been home to four garment factories.

The deadly collapse is the latest in a string of devastating incidents at garment factories in Bangladesh, including a fire last year that killed 112 workers. Bangladesh is the second largest exporter of clothing to the United States behind China, and U.S. retailers continued to be drawn to the country for manufacturing because the production costs are so low, experts said.

Advocates for the workers have led an increasingly vocal campaign in Bangladesh demanding safer working conditions, and have been pushing major American retailers including Wal-Mart and Gap to do more to insure that factory owners are not cutting corners to reduce costs.

"It tells us that despite all the promises and pledges from the retailers, that nothing has changed," said Scott Nova, of the Worker Rights Consortium, a group that has been lobbying U.S. retailers to do more on safety in Bangladesh.

Wal-Mart is among the well-known American companies listed as a customer on the web site of Ether Tex, one of the garment firms that was in the building that came down. But because a number of companies, including Wal-Mart, use sourcing firms to place their orders, they say it can be difficult to quickly determine where an order is being produced. A Wal-Mart spokesman told ABC News he remains unsure if clothing made for its stores were being sewn in the Bangladesh factory.

" We are saddened by this tragic event," said Kevin Gardner, a Wal-Mart spokesman. " Our investigation has confirmed Walmart had no authorized production in this facility. If we learn of any unauthorized production, we will take appropriate action based upon our zero-tolerance policy on unauthorized subcontracting. We remain committed to promoting stronger safety measures in factories and that work continues."

Death Toll Grows in Bangladesh Building Collapse

Charles Kernaghan, director of the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, which has a team on the ground in Dhaka interviewing survivors, told ABC News that he believes there were some 2,500 workers at work inside the four factories in the building.

He said many of the workers 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.

Nova said his group has found evidence that a number of well-known Western brands were at the factory. He said records showed that 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."

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