Bangladesh textile factories shut amid unrest

Garment workers shouts slogans during a protest for better working conditions more than a week after the collapse of Rana Plaza on 5 May
Image caption Garment workers have increased their demands for higher wages in Bangladesh

Many Bangladeshi textile factories near the capital, Dhaka, have shut because of unrest sparked by the collapse of a factory building last month, the country's textile association has said.

Owners made the decision on safety grounds after many workers went on a rampage, the group's president said.

Retailers in Europe meanwhile said they would sign an accord to improve safety conditions in factories in Bangladesh.

At least 1,127 people were killed when the Rana Plaza collapsed on 24 April.

Officials say the rescue operation is drawing to a close, with the military expected to hand over the site to the district administration on Tuesday.

"The possibility of getting more bodies is thin," said Brigadier General Mohammad Siddiqul Alam Shikder.

The Rana Plaza in Savar, on the outskirts of Dhaka, housed a number of textile factories, some of which were supplying Western retailers.

Its collapse is the latest in a series of deadly incidents focusing global attention on safety standards in Bangladesh's textile industry.

'Beatings and harassment'

One report said as many as 300 factories had closed in the Ashulia industrial area near Dhaka.

"Owners decided to close their factories on safety grounds after workers went on a rampage almost every day after the collapse of Rana Plaza," Mohammad Atiqul Islam, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, said on Monday.

Workers in 80% of the factories in Ashulia staged a walkout demanding a salary increase, as well as the execution of the owner of the Rana Plaza, local police chief Badrul Ala said.

Police say tensions have been further inflamed by the discovery of a body of a female worker in Ashulia on Sunday.

Thousands of workers took to the streets and vandalised vehicles and shops before being dispersed by police, a police officer told the Associated Press news agency.

On Monday, the government agreed to allow garment workers to form trade unions without permission from factory owners.

Image caption Reshma was the last person to be rescued from the Rana Plaza building, 17 days after it collapsed

The government amended the 2006 Labour Act lifting restrictions on forming trade unions in most industries, spokesman Mosharraf Hossain Bhuiyan said.

"The government is doing it for the welfare of the workers," Mr Bhuiyan told reporters.

This comes a day after the government created a new panel of union representatives and factory workers to raise the minimum wage for garment workers to $38 (£25) a month, which is still one of the lowest in the world.

However, trade union leaders have responded cautiously to the changes.

"The issue is not really about making a new law or amending the old one,'' Kalpana Akter of the Bangladesh Centre for Workers Solidarity told the Associated Press news agency.

"In the past whenever workers tried to form associations they were subjected to beatings and harassment.''

'Epidemic of disasters'

Bangladesh has one of the largest garment industries in the world.

Last Wednesday, 18 garment factories were shut down for safety reasons, amid growing concerns about industrial safety across the country.

Four major Western retailers - H&M, C&A, the UK's Primark Stores and the owner of the Zara chain, Inditex - said on Monday they will back an International Labour Organisation-backed agreement on fire and building safety that has been under negotiation since the Rana Plaza collapse.

The Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh would require them to conduct safety inspections, pay for repairs and stop doing business with any factory that refuses to make necessary safety improvements.

"This agreement is exactly what is needed to finally bring an end to the epidemic of fire and building disasters that have taken so many lives in the garment industry in Bangladesh,'' the executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, Scott Nova, said.

However, US firm Gap Inc declined to sign the accord, throwing its impact into question. It said it would only sign if changes were made to rules on how disputes were resolved.