Bangladesh rescue operation near end; collapse death toll at 1,127

DHAKA Mon May 13, 2013 10:31pm BST

1 of 3. Reshma Begum, 19, rescued from the rubble of the Rana Plaza building 17 days after the building collapsed, speaks during a media conference at Savar Combined Military Hospital in Savar May 13, 2013.

Credit: Reuters/Khurshed Rinku

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DHAKA (Reuters) - Bangladeshi salvage workers on Monday neared the end of their search for victims of the collapse of a factory building, scouring the basement of the complex that crumbled in on itself and killed 1,127 people.

A series of deadly incidents at factories, including a fire in November that killed 112 people, has focused global attention on safety standards in Bangladesh's booming garment industry.

The toll of 1,127 - the world's most deadly industrial accident since 1984 Bhopal disaster in India - could be the final one as no more bodies were found on Monday, a spokesman at the army control room coordinating the salvage operation said.

"The rescuers have reached the basement where the chances of finding more dead bodies are very low," said Captain Tazul Islam.

The site will be handed over to the district administration on Tuesday on completion of salvage work, according to army spokesman Shahinul Islam.

Reshma Begum, 19, a Bangladeshi woman who spent 17 days buried alive under factory rubble until her dramatic rescue on Friday, made her first public appearance on Monday and said she drew on mental fortitude to survive.

"After ... much time I regained my senses and heard several voices (of other victims) around me who cried out and said please give me water ... I replied where shall I get water? I could not see anything as it was dark everywhere," Begum said.

She said she eventually managed to find a packet of biscuits which she ate as well as two bottles of water that helped slake her terrible thirst. "After that there was nothing to eat."

She said she could hear many other victims weeping under the wreckage. "But I did not fear. I don't know where I got so much mental strength. I never thought that I could survive. It is the almighty Allah who saved me," said Begum, who doctors said has been recovering from acute dehydration.

The cabinet approved an amendment to Bangladesh's labour laws on Monday, paving the way for parliament to allow garment workers to form unions without prior employer approval to help improve their job conditions, especially safety standards.

International labour and human rights groups had long campaigned for workers to be able to form establish unions without such approval. The amendment was endorsed a day after the government decided to form a wage board to consider pay increases for readymade garment workers.

Average monthly minimum wages now stand at the equivalent of $38 (24.8 pounds) after an increase of about 80 percent in 2010 in response to months of violent street protests.

UNREST TRIGGERS FACTORY CLOSURES

Worker unrest prompted authorities to shut down more than 300 garment factories for indefinite periods in the Ashulia industrial belt, on the outskirts of the capital Dhaka, that accounts for nearly 20 percent of total exports.

"Owners decided to close their factories on safety grounds after workers went on a rampage almost every day after the collapse of Rana Plaza," said Mohammad Atiqul Islam, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association.

Eight people were killed in a fire at a factory last week that an industry association said may have been arson.

About 2,500 people were rescued from the Rana Plaza, in Savar, a commercial suburb of Dhaka, after the April 24 collapse. Many survivors suffered serious injuries.

The disaster, believed to have been triggered when generators were started up during a blackout, has raised questions about the use by Western retailers of the impoverished South Asian nation as a source of cheap goods.

Nine people have been arrested in connection with the disaster, including the building's owner and bosses of the factories it housed.

The government has accused the owners and builders of the eight-storey complex of using shoddy building materials, including substandard rods, bricks and cement, and of not obtaining the necessary clearances.

Bangladesh's garment industry accounts for 80 percent of its exports. Low wages have helped lift Bangladesh to number two in the global ranking of exporters, behind China.

Bangladesh ranked last in minimum wages for factory workers in 2010, according to World Bank data, behind Cambodia.

(Editing by Mark Heinrich)

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