290 dead as high street fashion chains told to put lives before profits after Bangladeshi factory collapse

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Death toll passes 290 as staff describe how they were ordered to continue production despite raising concerns over huge cracks in the eight-storey structure

Pressure is mounting on high street retailers and leading brands to put lives ahead of profits and safeguard Bangladeshi factory workers as the death toll from the collapse of a building housing clothing manufacturers passed 290.

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The factories supplied Britain's Primark and Matalan, as well as Spain's Mango, whilst C&A said it had previous links to one of the contractors.

Tonight rescuers located 40 survivors stranded in the rubble at Savar, near Dhaka, as staff described how they were ordered to continue production despite raising concerns over huge cracks in the eight-storey structure.

US supermarket giant Wall-Mart was also on the factory's clients' list although it has not confirmed this. UK company Premier Clothing said it used suppliers on the sixth and seventh floor of the building.

Hundreds more people are believed to have been injured in the disaster which comes six months after a fire at a Dhaka clothes factory left 112 people dead when emergency exits were blocked. The incident highlighted the dangers in an industry that reportedly accounts for 80 per cent of the country's exports and employs three million workers earning an average of 12p an hour, campaigners say.

According to the Associated Press, among those trapped was Mohammad Altab who lay pinned tightly between two concrete slabs. Next to him lay two corpses. "Save us brother. I beg you brother. I want to live," he moaned. "It's so painful here... I have two little children."

The cracks in the Rana Plaza building were discovered on Tuesday and were reported on the local television news. Staff from a bank that is housed in the same building were evacuated. However, bosses at the five clothing companies told their 3,000 employees to report for duty as normal. The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association claimed it had asked the factories to suspend work starting on Wednesday morning, hours before the collapse.

"After we got the crack reports, we asked them to suspend work until further examination, but they did not pay heed," said Atiqul Islam, the group's president. It was reported that some of the floors on the building had been illegally built.

Laia Blanch of British charity War on Want urged the UK government to intervene. "It is unacceptable that UK firms continue to make huge profits from garments produced under appalling health and safety conditions," she said. Oxfam said the collapse highlighted the vulnerability of many buildings in densely-populated Dhaka, a city that sits on two seismic fault- lines.Speaking from Dhaka, Gareth Price-Jones said many retailers already claimed that ethical working practices were in place but in reality were often not enforced.

He said companies needed to change the working culture of factories in Bangladesh, where profit margins come before safety. He said this could be done at little cost.

"It can be as simple as changing the culture. The only reason there were workers in that building was because management told them they would be docked pay if they did not go to work," he said. Mr Price-Jones said consumers had the power to "hold brands to account".

An action plan by the Bangladeshi government following last year's tragedy has done little to improve conditions, Scott Nova of the Washington-based Workers Rights Consortium said.

Campaigners are urging companies to sign up instead to the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement (BFBSA) which would require signatories to fit out their suppliers' premises to full safety standards. So far only PVH, owner of Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger, and German retailer Tchibo have signed up. Mr Nova said it was estimated regulation would add 6p to the cost of an item of clothing.

"Change will only happen when major brands and retailers including those in the UK say that there is such a risk to their reputations that they will finally take the step of protecting the lives of their workers. This is not an industry driven by moral considerations but the bottom line," he said.

Unions claim that 700 garment workers have died in the past 10 years during which time wages have declined for the predominantly female workforce by 2.37 per cent. Primark said it had been working for several years with NGOs and other retailers to "review the Bangladeshi industry's approach to factory standards." It said it would now "push for this review to also include building integrity."

A spokesman for Premier Clothing said: "We were shocked and deeply saddened to hear about the terrible tragedy… Our thoughts are with the victims and their families."

Mango said it had only discussed production of a test sample of clothing with one of the factories. Matalan meanwhile said it had not used New Wave since February when it had switched production for commercial reasons. Primark, is a member of the Ethical Trading Initiative designed to promote safety standards through the supply chain. It is calling for a collaborative approach between retailers and suppliers.

But Sam Maher of the group Labour Behind the Label, said: "It's unbelievable that brands still refuse to sign a binding agreement with unions and labour groups to stop these unsafe working conditions from existing."

The Bangladeshi Home Minister Muhiuddin Khan Alamgir said the building had violated construction codes and that "the culprits would be punished."

The building owner has been ordered to appear before Bangladesh's High Court next week alongside the top management of the factories.

Timeline: Factory disasters

25 Nov 2000 A fire at the Sagar Chowdhury Garment Factory in Narsingdi, 35 miles from Dhaka, kills 52 people, including children. A locked gate stops them escaping.

11 Apr 2005 Sixty-four people are killed when the Spectrum factory near Dhaka collapses. The disaster is blamed on illegal construction.

25 Feb 2010 A fire kills 21 workers at Garib & Garib Newaj factory in Gazipur, which supplies H&M.

14 Dec 2010 A fire at the That's It Sports Wear factory in Dhaka kills 29. Its customers include GAP.

24 Nov 2012 A fire at the Tazreen Fashions factory near Dhaka kills 112. US rapper and producer Sean Combs is among its Western customers with his ENYCE label.

26 Jan 2013 Eight workers die in a fire at the Smart Fashions factory in Dhaka. Brands found in the wreckage include Bershka and Lefties (Inditex), KIK and New Look.

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