The death toll in last week’s collapse of a factory building near Dhaka in Bangladesh has risen to at least 398, according to Red Crescent officials in that country, who say that they don’t expect additional survivors to be found.

Two bodies were pulled from the rubble yesterday.

The nine-story building, which housed five garment factories that made goods for U.S. stores like Wal Mart and Dress Barn, had a reported two thousand workers in it at the time the upper floors collapsed onto the lower ones, resulting in a pile of wreckage approximately two stories high. Manufacturing operations inside the building were in full swing despite police orders the previous day to evacuate it due to the appearance of large cracks in the building’s foundation.

Threats from company officials

Human Rights Watch says the tragedy shows the urgent need for worker safety reforms in Bangladesh – reforms that it said should include a drastic overhaul of the government’s system of labor inspections and an end to government efforts to thwart the right of workers to unionize. The organization says there are only only 18 inspectors for the 100,000 factories operating in and around Dhaka – companies that employ an estimated three million workers.

“Numerous workers in the building were reluctant to enter the premises on the morning before the collapse, but did so after being told the building was safe or after alleged threats from company officials,” according to a statement by Human Rights Watch.

The latest building collapse joins a host of other deadly workplace incidents in Bangladesh:  the April 2005 collapse of a factory in which 73 garment workers died,  the February 2006 factory collapse that killed 18 workers, the June 2010, fire that claimed the lives of  25 people and the November 2012 factory fire that killed 100 workers. 

Factories given advance notice of inspections

When inspectors find infringements of the Labour Act, the companies at fault are often fined around $13 per case, even thought the law allows for imprisonment for those responsible for violating workplace health and safety provisions.

Officials with the Inspection Department told Human Rights Watch in June 2012 that they considered it a priority to maintain good relations with factory managers, which means it is normal practice to give factories advance notice of a visit. A deputy chief inspector explained, “We always try to maintain good relations with management. Usually we give advance notice [of an inspection]. Sometimes we send a letter, sometimes we phone if the number is available.”

Human Rights watch says labor groups in Bangladesh operate in a “pervasively hostile” environment, citing the April 2012 torture and murder of labor rights activist Aminul Islam, and the imprisonment of more than a dozen labor rights leaders who currently face a variety of criminal charges.

“Had one or more of the Rana Plaza factories been unionized, workers could have refused to enter the building the day it collapsed,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

Political connections

Many factory owners in Bangladesh are parliamentarians or members of the main political parties. In an interview with a government minister in 2011, the minister told Human Rights Watch that it would be “impossible” to improve workers rights so long as factory owners were senior members of political parties. 

Human Rights Watch knows of no cases in which the Bangladeshi government has ever prosecuted a factory owner over the deaths of workers. The Bangladeshi Garment and Industrial Workers Federation reports that more than 10 percent of members of parliament have ownership stakes in garment factories.

Sources are reporting that most of those killed in the tragedy were young people -- 18 t0 22 years old – who hailed from Bangladesh’s impoverished northern region. Many family members of those still missing are keeping vigil at the site and sleeping on the street.

In the wake of the disaster, news sources report that the building’s owner, three factory owners and two government engineers have been arrested (the owner as he was attempting to flee the country).

Additionally, the Bangladesh government has decided to inspect all garment factories in the country to ascertain safety conditions.