The deadly collapse of a building in Bangladesh late last month made news around the world and brought the country back into the western media spotlight. On 24 April Rana Plaza, a eight-story building housing several garment factories, situated in Savar, 24 kilometers outside Dhaka, was reduced to rubble leading, so far, to the death of over 800 workers.
The 3.6 million strong communities of men and women working in the garment industry have enabled Bangladesh’s position as the world's second-largest apparel exporter. In the absence of basic workplace health and safety standards, these workers have become the victims of systematic human rights violations, suffering while others get rich to make fashionable clothes for faceless consumers. The very market that created the masterminds who are root and reason for this injustice remain untouched, while people continue to argue over responsibility for the deaths of these workers. Whether it’s the garments owners, government, buyers, retailers or consumers in the West, no one wants to take responsibility, instead pointing the finger at others.
From crack to collapse
According to media reports workers at Rana Plaza saw the cracks in the huge structure the day before the collapse but the authorities did not take any precautionary steps. The building owner Sohel Rana allegedly told media on the same day that the cracks were “nothing serious” and on 24th April, the day of the deadly incident, workers were forced to work and threatened with a month’s salary cut if they did not comply. All this in the country with the world’s lowest minimum wage. Rana has been described as “the most hated Bangladesh”, but an important detail has been missed in much of the reporting: Rana is not the owner of the garment factories nor did he decide whether the garment factories would remain open or not. Rana has been an easy scapegoat, as the building is named after him, but what about the systemic failings behind the front man?
Industrial police had asked the garment factory owners at Rana Plaza to keep the factories closed and only continue further operations after consulting with expert structural engineers. The question that remains unaddressed is: why did the factory owners and Rana work from the same playbook, and ignore this crucial advice?
The politics-business nexus
The politics-business nexus has long been the subject of public debate and discussion in Bangladesh. CNN’s Christiane Amanpour has noted that many politicians of the two major political parties—the ruling Awami League (AL) and the Bangladesh National Party (BNP)—have garment businesses. But another example is the case of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), an organisation that has been referred to frequently in international media as keeping a tally of the numbers dead in the Savar tragedy, and one that has demanded punishment for those responsible for it. It is not without irony that their stylish high-rise headquarters in the Bangladeshi capital were illegally built, according to the verdict of the country’s Supreme Court, which ordered the government to demolish the building within 90 days. Later on, the Supreme Court stayed the order, allegedly due to political leaders of all parties favoring the BGMEA.
The Bangladesh Prime Minister, Sheikh Hasina, has callously dismissed the tragedy in Savar by stating on CNN that “accidents happen,” much to the shock of her interviewer. In fact, Hasina’s Home Minister, Muhiuddin Khan Alamgir, in an interview with BBC Bangla, claimed, without a shred of evidence, that opposition party supporters may have shaken the building after the cracks appeared, which may have lead to the deadly collapse. Additionally, Finance Minister Abul Maal Abdul Muhith remarked, after the death toll had surpassed 530, that the disaster wasn’t “really serious.” These comments exemplify well the kleptocracy behind Bangladesh’s democratic façade.
Not only did Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina publicly deny the owner of Rana Plaza’s affiliation with her political party, the Member of Parliament representing Savar, Murad Jang, publicly denied that Rana was ever associated with party politics. Shortly thereafter, Rana’s affiliation with Murad and his political activities as a member of the ruling party were exposed in the media.
Illegal building extensions
Emdadul Islam, chief engineer of the state-run Capital Development Authority, told media that the owner of the building had not received the proper building consent, obtaining a permit for only a five-story building from the local municipality. The building was, however, illegally extended by a further three stories to a total of eight—an act ignored by the authorities due to Rana’s political connections.
Following the collapse, garment workers took to the streets in protest and demanded the arrest of Rana and the factory owners. In response to the agitation Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina ordered police to arrest Rana and the owners of the garment factories that were operating in the building. On 28th April Rana was arrested while he was trying to flee to India by road and brought back to Dhaka.
The Rana Plaza tragedy was an outcome of a corrupt system that is rotten to the core. The building was built without observing proper building codes and laws, and using poor materials—something that should have been monitored from the beginning by concerned authorities of the Bangladesh government, whose negligence is particularly culpable in this instance. Unfortunately, in Bangladesh, any kind of permission for high-rise buildings can be obtained through bribes, and the building can be built without procuring suitable building materials.
Sohel Rana, the owner of Rana Plaza and a Senior Joint Convenor of Awami League’s youth front Jubo League in the Savar municipality unit, constructed Rana Plaza in 2007. He did so by taking permission from the Savar Mayor, an Awami League member, who, in fact, had no authority to issue this permit. This is all beyond the point, however, and the fundamental question remains: what were the government authorities doing for so long if the building was constructed without proper permission years ago?
Who is responsible for the Rana Plaza tragedy?
In recent years the rapid expansion of the ready-made garments industry in Bangladesh has resulted in an increased demand for high-rise buildings. Many ordinary buildings have been converted into factories and sometimes the owners of buildings add extra floors without proper permission, as was the case in Rana Plaza. In this particular case various government authorities have notably failed to inspect and monitor the illegal establishment of Rana Plaza. Even after the cracks on the building were broadcast in local media, the government failed to act in a way that could have saved the lives of hundreds of extremely impoverished workers. In addition to the role played by Western companies that profit from Bangladesh’s cheap labor, Western media would do well to focus on and expose Bangladeshi political corruption to a global audience.
The systemic failure of government protection of human rights and lack of respect towards workers’ right allows incident like Rana Plaza to continue to happen. Beyond the famously low wages, unsafe working conditions and restrictions and repression of labour unions plague the industry. The state has a duty to protect its citizen against human rights abuses by third parties, including business enterprises, through regulation, policymaking, investigation and enforcement. But policymakers are also part of this profit-making business and are strong protectors of corruption mechanisms. Today, there's nothing but false promises and dirty politics from all parties. When the state itself protects the oppressors and limits access to judicial, administrative, or legislative protection and corporate responsibility, prevention of any infringement of rights remains a dream for many of the victims of serious and systemic human rights violations.
The Rana Plaza disaster is now making history as among the worst industrial accidents in Bangladesh, with a rising death toll and scores more critically injured. The accident follows a fire at the Tazreen Fashion factory and Smart Fabrics on the outskirts of Dhaka on 24 November 2012, leaving at least 117 dead and at least 200 injured. It was the deadliest factory fire in the nation's history; but the scale of the tragedy has now been surpassed by the Rana Plaza incident.
Now is the time to start wide ranging protests in the UK and other parts of the western world, to make the local people aware of the deadly work environment and the deaths of these poor workers by the profit-hungry business people who control the clothing industry.
The 2013 Savar building collapse or Rana Plaza collapse was a structural failure that occurred on 24 April 2013 in the Savar Upazila of Dhaka District, Bangladesh, where a five-story commercial building named Rana Plaza collapsed. The search for the dead ended on 13 May 2013 with a death toll of 1,134. Approximately 2,500 injured people were rescued from the building alive. It is considered the deadliest garment-factory accident in history, as well as the deadliest accidental structural failure in modern human history.
The building contained clothing factories, a bank, apartments, and several shops. The shops and the bank on the lower floors were immediately closed after cracks were discovered in the building. The building's owners ignored warnings to avoid using the building after cracks had appeared the day before. Garment workers were ordered to return the following day, and the building collapsed during the morning rush-hour.
The building, Rana Plaza, was owned by Sohel Rana, allegedly a member of the local unit of Jubo League, the youth wing of Bangladesh Awami League, the political party in power. It housed a number of separate garment factories employing around 5,000 people, several shops, and a bank. The factories manufactured apparel for brands including Benetton,Bonmarché,the Children's Place,El Corte Inglés,Joe Fresh,Monsoon Accessorize,Mango,Matalan,Primark, and Walmart.
The head of the Bangladesh Fire Service & Civil Defense, Ali Ahmed Khan, said that the upper four floors had been built without a permit. Rana Plaza's architect, Massood Reza, said the building was planned for shops and offices – but not factories. Other architects stressed the risks involved in placing factories inside a building designed only for shops and offices, noting the structure was potentially not strong enough to bear the weight and vibration of heavy machinery.
On 23 April 2013, a TV channel recorded footage that showed cracks in the Rana Plaza building. Immediately afterward, the building was evacuated, and the shops and the bank on the lower floors were closed. Later in the day, Sohel Rana said to the media that the building was safe and workers should return tomorrow. Managers at Ether Tex threatened to withhold a month's pay from workers who refused to come to work.
Collapse and rescue
On the morning of 24 April, there was a power outage, and diesel generators on the top floor were started. The building collapsed at about 08:57 a.m. BST, leaving only the ground floor intact. The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association president confirmed that 3,122 workers were in the building at the time of the collapse. One local resident described the scene as if "an earthquake had struck."
The United Nations' urban search and rescue coordination group - known as the International Search and Rescue Advisory Group, or INSARAG - offered assistance from its members, but this offer was rejected by government of Bangladesh. The government made a statement suggesting that the area's local rescue emergency services were well equipped. Prior to offering assistance to Bangladesh, the UN held consultations to assess the country's ability to mount an effective rescue operation, and they reached the conclusion that they lacked that capability. Bangladeshi officials, desiring to take "face-saving" actions and protecting national sensibilities, refused to accept the assistance offered to them by the UN. A large portion of the rescue operation consisted of inadequately equipped volunteers, many of whom had no protective clothing and wore sandals. Some buried workers drank their own urine to survive the high temperatures, waiting to be saved. Not only was the Bangladeshi government accused of favouring national pride over those buried alive, but many relatives of those trapped in the debris criticised the government for trying to end the rescue mission prematurely.
One of the garment manufacturers' websites indicates that more than half of the victims were women, along with a number of their children who were in nursery facilities within the building. Bangladeshi Home Minister Muhiuddin Khan Alamgir confirmed that fire service personnel, police, and military troops were assisting with the rescue effort. Volunteer rescue workers used bolts of fabric to assist survivors to escape from the building. A national day of mourning was held on 25 April.
On 8 May army spokesman, Mir Rabbi, said the army's attempt to recover more bodies from the rubble would continue for at least another week. On 10 May, 17 days after the collapse, a woman named Reshma was found and rescued alive and almost unhurt under the rubble.
The direct reasons for the building problems were:
- Building built on a filled in pond which compromised structural integrity,
- Conversion from commercial use to industrial use,
- Addition of 3 floors above the original permit,
- The use of substandard construction material (which led to an overload of the building structure aggravated by vibrations due to the generators). Those various elements indicated dubious business practices by Sohel Rana and dubious administrative practices in Savar.
One good example to illustrate the dubious administrative practices is the evacuation of the building after the cracks. It was reported that the Industrial police first requested the evacuation of the building until an inspection had been conducted. It was also reported that Abdur Razak Khan, an engineer, declared the building unsafe and requested public authorities to conduct a more thorough inspection; he was arrested for helping the owner illegally add three floors. It is also reported that Kabir Hossain Sardar, the Upazila Nirbahi Officer who visited the site, met with Sohel Rana, and declared the building safe. Sohel Rana said to the media that the building was safe and workers should return to work the next day. One manager of the factories in the Rana Plaza reported that Sohel Rana told them that the building was safe. Managers then requested the workers to go back to work and as a result workers also returned to the factories the next day.
Causes related to manufacturers and safety compliance
Some people have argued that the decision by managers to send workers back into the factories was due to the pressure to complete orders for buyers on time. This second line of argument gives partial responsibility for the disaster to the short production deadlines preferred by buyers due to the quick changes of designs, referred to as fast fashion. Some have argued the demand for fast fashion and low-cost clothing motivated minimal oversight by clothing brands, and that collectively organised trade unions could have responded to the pressure of management. Others have argued that trade unions would increase workforce costs and thus endanger the Bangladesh garment industry.
Since the Spectrum factory collapse in 2005, prominent manufacturers organised projects like the Ethical Trading Initiative and Business Social Compliance Initiative (BSCI) with the purpose of preventing such disasters. These programs ultimately failed to prevent the Savar building collapse. Despite social compliance audits conducted according to BSCI procedure at two of the factories at Rana Plaza, auditors failed to detect the structural concerns. In a press release following the collapse, BSCI explained that their system did not cover building safety. This has been contested, as the BSCI audit questionnaire required auditors to check building permits, and discrepancies between the permit and the number of floors in practice were evident. Some have argued that the BSCI has weak incentives to report such violations.
More conclusions about causes will be available when the investigation is over and the courts give their decisions.
The day after the Rana Plaza building collapsed, the Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakkha (Capital city development authority) filed a case against the owners of the building and the five garment factories operating inside it. On the same day, dozens of survivors were discovered in the remains of the building. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had said in Parliament that the name of Rana was not in the Jubo League office bearers list, she ordered the arrest of Sohel Rana and four of the owners of the garment factories operating in the building. Sohel Rana was reported to have gone into hiding; however, authorities reported that four other individuals had already been arrested in connection with the collapse.
Two days after the building collapsed, garment workers across the industrial areas of Dhaka, Chittagong and Gazipur rioted, targeting vehicles, commercial buildings and garment factories. The next day, leftist political parties and the Bangladesh Nationalist Party-led 18 Party Alliance demanded the arrest and trial of suspects and an independent commission to identify vulnerable factories. Four days after the building collapsed, the owner of the Rana Plaza, Sohel Rana, was arrested at Benapole, Jessore District, on the Indo-Bangladeshi border, by security forces. On the same day a fire broke out at the disaster site and authorities were forced to temporarily suspend the search for survivors.
On 1 May, during International Workers' Day, thousands of protesting workers paraded through central Dhaka to demand safer working conditions and the death penalty for the owner of Rana Plaza. A week later hundreds of survivors of Bangladesh's worst industrial disaster blocked a main highway to demand wages as the death toll from the collapse passed 700. Local government officials said they had been in talks with the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association to pay the workers their outstanding April salaries plus a further three months – £97. After officials promised the surviving workers that they would be soon paid, they ended their protest. The government and garment association were compiling a list of surviving employees to establish who must be paid and compensated. The next day, 18 garment plants, including 16 in Dhaka and two in Chittagong, were closed down. Textile minister, Abdul Latif Siddique, told reporters that more plants would be shut as part of strict new measures to ensure safety.
On 5 June, police in Bangladesh fired into the air in an attempt to disperse hundreds of former workers and relatives of the victims of the collapse who were protesting to demand back pay and compensation promised by the government and the Bangladesh Garments Manufacturers and Exporters Association. On 10 June, seven inspectors were suspended and accused of negligence for renewing the licenses of garment factories in the building that collapsed. On 30 August, 100 days after the collapse of Rana Plaza, injured workers and family members of those who died there along with workers rights activists inaugurated a memorial for the tragedy, a crude statue of two fists thrusting towards the sky grasping a hammer and sickle. The police attempted to stop the erection of the memorial several times. It remains the only memorial monument for the tragedy.
On 22 September, at least 50 people were injured when police fired rubber bullets and tear gas into a crowd of protesters who were blocking streets in Dhaka demanding a minimum wage of $100 (8,114 takas) a month. In November, a 10-story garment factory in Gazipur, which supplied Western brands, was allegedly burned down by workers angered over rumours of a colleague's death in police firing.
In March 2014 Rana Plaza owner Sohel Rana was granted six months' bail in the High Court. This prompted angry reactions from labour leaders. However, Rana will not be released from jail as another case filed by police is pending. A December 2015 report, written by the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, found that only eight of 3,425 factories inspected had "remedied violations enough to pass a final inspection" despite the international community's $280 million commitment to clean up Bangladesh's RMG industry. In 14 June 2016 Sohel Rana and 17 others were indicted for violating building code in the construction of Rana Plaza. On August 2016 the trial was postponed after defendants filled appeals with the High Court of Bangladesh.
Nick Clegg, then UK Deputy PM and leader of the Liberal Democrats said: "... consumers have more power than they think when it comes to making choices about where they shop."
Michael Connarty, UK's Falkirk East MP, is calling on the UK Government to push through new legislation to end modern day slavery by forcing major High Street companies in the UK to audit their supply chain. The framework requests that those companies make vigorous checks to ensure slave labour is not used in third world countries and the UK to produce their goods.
Karel De Gucht, current European Commissioner for Trade, warned that retailers and the Bangladeshi government could face action from the EU if nothing is done to improve the conditions of workers – adding that shoppers should also consider where they are spending their money.
On 1 May, Pope Francis spoke out against the working conditions in the factory:
A headline that really struck me on the day of the tragedy in Bangladesh was 'Living on 38 euros a month'. That is what the people who died were being paid. This is called slave labour. Today in the world this slavery is being committed against something beautiful that God has given us – the capacity to create, to work, to have dignity. How many brothers and sisters find themselves in this situation! Not paying fairly, not giving a job because you are only looking at balance sheets, only looking at how to make a profit. That goes against God!
Human Rights Watch stated their concern over the number of factory-building tragedies in Bangladesh; there have been numerous major accidents in the country in the past decade, including the 2012 Dhaka fire.
IndustriALL Global Union, a global union federation representing textile and garment workers' trade unions around the world, launched an online campaign in support of the Bangladeshi unions' demand for labour law reform in the wake of the disaster. The campaign, hosted on LabourStart, calls for changes in the law to make it easier for unions to organise workers, as well as demanding improved health and safety conditions.
On 27 April, protesters surrounded Primark store on Oxford Street in the City of Westminster in the West End of London. Speaking outside the store, Murray Worthy, from campaign group War on Want, said:
We're here to send a clear message to Primark that the 300 deaths in the Bangladesh building collapse were not an accident – they were entirely preventable deaths. If Primark had taken its responsibility to those workers seriously, no one need have died this week.
There have been monthly protests at Benetton's flagship store at Oxford Circus in London since the one year anniversary of the collapse. Benetton initially denied reports linking production of their clothing at the factory, but clothes and documents linked to Benetton were discovered at the disaster site. The protesters are demanding that Benetton contribute to the compensation fund, which they have not yet done.
The Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights established a workers' relief fund, which raised $26,000 for injured workers and surviving family members by September 2013.
A team of researchers from NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights began their investigation which resulted in an April 2014 entitled "Business as Usual Is Not an Option: Supply Chains & Sourcing after Rana Plaza." A December 2015 report, written by the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights, found that only eight of 3,425 factories inspected had "remedied violations enough to pass a final inspection" despite the international community's $280 million commitment to clean up Bangladesh's RMG industry.
Dozens of consumers in the United States spoke out against unsafe working conditions found in the factory building. People also expressed their anger at retailers that did not have any connections to that specific building, but are known to source from factories located in Bangladesh.
Fashion industry response
At a meeting of retailers and NGOs a week after the collapse, a new Accord on Factory and Building Safety in Bangladesh was created and a deadline of 16 May was set to sign it. The agreement expands on a previous accord signed only by the US-based PVH, which owns Calvin Klein, and German retailer Tchibo.
Walmart, along with 14 other North American companies, refused to sign the accord as the deadline passed. As of 23 May 2013, thirty-eight companies had signed the accord. Walmart, J.C. Penney and labour activists have been considering an agreement to improve factory safety in Bangladesh for at least two years. In 2011, Walmart rejected reforms that would have had retailers pay more for apparel to help Bangladesh factories improve safety standards.
On 10 July 2013, a group of 17 major North American retailers, including Walmart, Gap, Target and Macy's, announced a plan to improve factory safety in Bangladesh, drawing immediate criticism from labour groups who complained that it was less stringent than an accord reached among European companies. Unlike the accord joined mainly by European retailers, the plan lacks legally binding commitments to pay for those improvements.
Dov Charney, the founder and former CEO of American Apparel, was interviewed on Vice.tv and spoke out against the poor treatment of workers in developing countries and refers to it as "slave labor". Charney proposes a "Global Garment Workers Minimum Wage" as well discusses in detail many of the inner workings of the modern fast fashion industry commerce practices that leads to dangerous factory conditions like at Savar.
Compensation to victims
As of mid-September 2013, compensations to families of disaster victims were still under discussion, with many families struggling to survive after having lost a major wage earner. Families who had received the $200 compensation from Primark were only those able to provide DNA evidence of their relative's death in the collapse, which proved extremely difficult. The US government provided DNA kits to the families of victims.
Of the 29 brands identified as having sourced products from the Rana Plaza factories, only 9 attended meetings held in November 2013 to agree a proposal on compensation to the victims. Several companies refused to sign including Walmart, Carrefour, Mango, Auchan and KiK. The agreement was signed by Primark, Loblaw, Bonmarche and El Corte Ingles. By March 2014, seven of the 28 international brands sourcing products from Rana Plaza had contributed to the Rana Plaza Donor’s Trust Fund compensation fund, which is backed by the International Labour Organization.
More than 2 dozen victims' families have not been compensated as they could not back up their claims with documentation.
On 15 June 2014 Bangladesh Anti Corruption Commission filled a case against 14 people for building Rana Plaza with faulty design. On 1 June 2015, murder charges were filed by Bangladesh police against 42 different people, including the owners of the building, over the collapse. The accused were indicted on 28 July 2016. The case was delayed after Bangladesh High Court stopped trial proceeding against 5 accused including Savar Municipal Mayor Refayat Ullah.
On 29 August 2017, the factory owner, Sohel Rana was sentenced to a maximum three year imprisonment by a court for failing to declare his personal wealth to country's anti-graft commission and other charges, including murder.
The Savar building collapse has led to widespread discussions about corporate social responsibility across global supply chains. Based on an analysis of the Savar building collapse, Wieland and Handfield (2013) suggest that companies need to audit products and suppliers; and that supplier auditing needs to go beyond direct relationships with first-tier suppliers. They also demonstrate that visibility must be improved if supply cannot be directly controlled, and that smart and electronic technologies play a key role to improve visibility. Finally, they highlight that collaboration with local partners, across the industry and with universities is crucial to successfully managing social responsibility in supply chains.
Bangladesh Garment Sramik Sanghati, an organisation working for the welfare of the workers, has called on the government, international buyers and factory owners to compensate survivors and victims' families. The group has also asked that April 24 be declared Labor Safety Day in the country.
Global labour and rights groups have criticised Western retailers and say they are not doing enough to ensure the safety at factories where their clothes are made. The companies linked to the Rana Plaza disaster include the Spanish brand Mango, Italian brand Benetton and French retailer Auchan.
On 24 April 2014, thousands of people gathered at an event held to commemorate the first anniversary of the disaster near the building site.
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