Police in Bangladesh on Monday filed the first formal murder charges against the owner of a building that collapsed in 2013, killing more than 1,130 people in the country's worst industrial disaster.
The collapse of Rana Plaza, built on swampy ground outside the capital, Dhaka, ranks amongst the world's worst industrial accidents, and sparked an outcry for greater safety in the world's second-largest exporter of ready-made garments.
In all, 42 people were charged over the disaster, a rare step in a country where critics complain that powerful garment industry bosses often go unpunished for factory accidents.
"We pressed charges against 42 people, including owner Sohel Rana, in two cases filed over the building collapse," said lead investigator Bijoy Krishna Kar, adding that one case was for murder and the other over a breach in construction rules.
The investigation found the workers were forced to enter the building to work despite major cracks discovered a day before it collapsed, Kar, an official of the Criminal Investigation Department of the police, told Reuters.
If convicted Rana could be sentenced to death.
Rana was arrested after a four-day hunt shortly after the April 2013 building collapse, apparently trying to flee across the border to neighboring India.
Low labor costs and, critics say, shortcuts on safety, make Bangladesh the cheapest place to make large quantities of clothing.
About 4 million people work in Bangladesh's garment industry, some earning as little as $38 a month, conditions Pope Francis has compared to "slave labor."
Some 220 garment factories have shut down in Bangladesh with the loss of up to 150,000 jobs after the collapse of Rana Plaza triggered a wave of inspections, Germany-based NGO Transparency International said in a recent report.
After the tragedy, the Monitor reported that a variety of clothing manufacturers agreed to a new fire and building safety code for suppliers in Bangladesh.
The accord agreed upon in the accident’s aftermath draws on an earlier agreement forged by unions and activists in the wake of other deadly, if less publicized, incidents in Bangladesh. Then, only PVH, the owner of the Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger brands, and Germany’s Tchibo, signed on.
But after Rana Plaza, Sweden’s H&M, the largest retailer operating in Bangladesh, also came on board: a key move, activists say, that paved the way for others, including Britain’s Primark and Spain’s Inditex, owner of Zara. With some 40 companies on board, the new agreement is singular in scope and covers more than 1,000 of Bangladesh’s 4,500 factories.
There are some doubts about its long-term impact, especially if consumers’ penchant for bargains remains strong and corruption rampant in Bangladesh. But others have called it a game changer for the country, the world’s second largest apparel exporter after China. They say the accord will inevitably raise standards and workers’ expectations – potentially causing a ripple effect on the global industry.