The death toll in the Bangladesh building collapse topped 675 Monday, giving the disaster the grim distinction of being the deadliest ever to hit the garment industry. Workers are still searching for bodies at the site as others dig for clues about which global fashion brands had ties to the building's ill-fated garment suppliers.
Since Rana Plaza buckled last month, a handful of retailers including Secaucus, N.J.-based The Children’s Place and Plano, Texas-based J.C. Penney have acknowledged that some apparel sold in their stores had been produced in one of the building’s five factories. Still, many more have remained silent, leaving labor and human rights groups that want retailers to compensate victims of the disaster with little choice but to physically dig through the rubble to find out who was doing business with suppliers housed in the shoddily-built structure.
There is no obligation for apparel companies to disclose where their garments are made, and with the exception of some companies — such as Levis and Nike, which disclose their suppliers online— sourcing information is typically kept from the public. (Neither Levis nor Nike used factories in Rana Plaza.)
“The vast majority of key brands and retailers including those sourcing from Bangladesh disclose nothing,” said Scott Nova, the executive director of the Worker’s Rights Consortium, which has been working to compile a list of retailers that used factories housed in Rana Plaza.
His organization’s investigation began with a search through online shipping records, which linked apparel from Rana Plaza to Cato fashions, The Children’s Place and Joe Fresh, the fashion line sold in nearly 700 J.C. Penney stores.
While shipping records can shed some light on who does business with whom, Nova notes, the information in these documents can often be spotty.
"It depends on whether the actual brand or retailer on the U.S.-end puts its own name on the shipping manifest as opposed to the name of a middleman and more ofthen than not it's the name of middleman," Nova said. "The same thing can happen on the factory side."
The building’s rubble, therefore, is the only place investigators expect to find a fuller, more honest picture of the brands tied to disaster.
Laura Gutierrez, a Bangladesh-based volunteer with the International Labor Rights Forum, estimates that she has seen more than a dozen different brand names at the site of the collapse.
“The majority of the building is inaccessible, because the floors pancaked on top of each other, so I know that I’m missing quite a lot,” she said in an interview with NBC Friday. “I haven’t even located the offices in the building. It’s not a pretty picture.”
So far, the major brands that confirmed their connections to the site include United Colors of Benetton, Primark, Joe Fresh, Cato, J.C. Penney, The Children’s Place and Mango. Several have indicated that they would compensate victims and work to improve working conditions in the country.
Dress Barn acknowledged that it had done business with one of the factories in the past, but had not taken any orders from the facility since 2010. Walmart was listed as a customer on the website of Ether Tex, one of the garment factories housed in Rana Plaza. But the company indicated that any connection it may have had to Ether Tex predated the factory’s move to the stricken building, The Wall Street Journal reported.
Many unfamiliar names have also been found on labels pulled from the disaster site and activists are still working to figure out where these brands are based and who is behind them.
The investigation process is expected to take longer than usual given the unique nature of the Rana Plaza disaster. Unlike fires, which have plagued Bangladesh’s garment industry in the past, a building collapse requires a massive excavation before all the evidence can be gathered.
“A lot of this stuff is buried along with a lot of bodies. So this may be an unusual situation in which material is being found over a period of weeks or months,” Nova said. “Who knows what’s going to be found under the rubble.”
As of Monday, the death toll at Rana Plaza surpassed 650 and scores were still missing. The eight-story building was evacuated the day before its April 24 collapse after giant cracks appeared on the structure. The factories, however, were back up and running the following day. More than 3,000 people were inside Rana Plaza when it caved in.
Since the disaster, the building’s owner, Sohel Rana, has been arrested, along with his father, engineers and four factory owners. The mayor of Savar, where the factory was located, was also suspended for allegedly allowing the illegal construction of the building.
Barbara Briggs, a spokeswoman from the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, which has been gathering testimonies from victims of the collapse, said that some of the injured will be completely disabled for the rest of their lives.
“These companies ought to pony up and provide compensation to the families to try to at least take care of some of the material needs that they’re going to have for this disaster,” she said. “Longer term,” she added, “we’re all going to have to think long and hard about how we assure the basic safety and most fundamental rights of the workers who make the products that we buy.”