Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Factory collapse downplayed

Politician says it wasn't 'really serious,' just an accident

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DHAKA, Bangladesh -- Bangladesh's finance minister downplayed the impact of last week's factory-building collapse on his country's garment industry, saying Friday he didn't think it was "really serious" hours after the 500th body was pulled from the debris.

Finance Minister Abul Maal Abdul Muhith spoke as the government cracked down on those it blamed for the disaster in the Dhaka suburb of Savar. It suspended Savar's mayor and arrested an engineer who had called for the building's evacuation last week, but was also accused of helping the owner add three illegal floors to the eight-storey structure. The building owner was arrested earlier.

The government appears to be attempting to fend off accusations it is in part to blame for the tragedy because of weak oversight of the building's construction.

During a visit to the Indian capital, New Delhi, Muhith said the disaster would not harm Bangladesh's garment industry, which is by far the country's biggest source of export income.

"The present difficulties... well, I don't think it is really serious -- it's an accident," he said. "And the steps that we have taken in order to make sure that it doesn't happen, they are quite elaborate and I believe that it will be appreciated by all."

The government made similar promises after a garment factory fire five months ago that killed 112, saying it would inspect factories for safety and pull the licences of those that failed. However, that plan has yet to be implemented.

Asked if he was worried foreign retailers might pull orders from his country, Muhith said he wasn't: "These are individual cases of... accidents. It happens everywhere."

Muhith, a longtime government official from a prominent family, has been criticized for insensitive comments in the past -- even by his own party. Last year when thousands of small investors lost their savings and poured into the streets seeking government intervention, Muhith said it wasn't responsible and the investors were at fault.

The official death toll from the April 24 collapse reached 512 Friday and was expected to climb, making it likely the deadliest garment-factory accident in world history. It surpassed long-ago disasters such as New York's Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, which killed 146 workers in 1911, and more recent tragedies such as a 2012 fire that killed about 260 people in Pakistan and one in Bangladesh that same year that killed 112.

At the site of the collapse, workers carefully used cranes to remove the concrete rubble and continue the slow task of recovering bodies.

-- The Associated Press

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 4, 2013 A22

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