Bangladesh workers rally to demand safer working conditions and death penalty for owner of collapsed factory as death toll passes 400

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Thousands march in May Day protests in Dhaka over lax safety regulations

Asia Correspondent

The death toll from the Bangladesh building collapse has now passed 400 with at least 149 other people officially listed as unaccounted for. Many hundreds more may yet be missing beneath the rubble.

As thousands of workers marched through Dhaka to demand better and safer working conditions and the death penalty for the owner of the building that collapsed, officials said 402 people were now known to have lost their lives - 399 at the site and a further three in hospital.

According to the Associated Press, Zillur Rahman Chowdhury, a Dhaka district administrator, said so far 149 people have been listed missing. But a police official, Aminur Rahman, said police have recorded up to 1,300 names as missing. He said some of those may be duplicates.

"We will now have to screen the names by computer to find the actual number," he said.

Last week's collapse of an eight-storey building containing garment factories producing clothes for Western brands, has drawn fresh attention to the perilous and largely unregulated nature of the industry. The £14bn garment trade brings vital foreign currency to the developing nation and officials have previously been loathe to take steps that might persuade Western companies to look elsewhere.

But last week's incident - the latest in a series of deadly disasters - has created unprecedented anger inside Bangladesh. Many believed the politcally-connected owner of the factory would escape justice, but at the weekend Mohammed Sohel Rana was arrested by commandoes as he tried to enter India.

Mr Rana, who has links with both the ruling party and the main opposition, is being questioned by police while under arrest. He is expected to be charged with negligence, illegal construction and forcing workers to join work, which is punishable by a maximum of seven years in jail. The authorities have not said if more serious crimes will be added at a later date.

Mr Rana was yesterday the focus of much anger and anguish among the thousands of marchers who stepped through Dhaka as part of a May Day parade. The often noisy procession of workers wound its way in cars, trucks and on motor-bikes. Many waved flags and beat drums as they chanted "death penalty".

The AP said that from a loudspeaker attached to the back of one truck, a participant spoke for the group: "My brother has died. My sister has died. Their blood will not be valueless."

May Day protests, customarily an opportunity for workers in a still largely impoverished nation to vent their grievances, have taken on a new significance this year following last week's disaster.

On Wednesday, the authorities also buried the bodies of 18 workers whose remains were found in the rubble but whom remain unidentified.

EU officials have said they are considering action including changes to Bangladesh's duty-free and quota-free access to the giant EU market to persuade officials to adopt a more responsible management of the nation's garment industry.

In a statement, Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign affairs chief, and its trade commissioner, Karel De Gucht, called for the Bangladesh authorities to act immediately to ensure factories comply with international labour standards.

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