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Bangladesh Fears Exodus Of Western Retailers

The Walt Disney Co.'s decision to end its apparel production in Bangladesh after more than 500 people died in the collapse of a garment factory complex has sparked fears of a mass exodus of Western retailers.

According to The New York Times, "Mohammad Fazlul Azim, a member of the Bangladesh Parliament and an influential garment factory owner, implored brands not to leave Bangladesh," noting that unlike Rana Plaza, the building that crumbled last week, many factories are in compliance with safety standards.

"The whole nation should not be made to suffer," he said. "This industry is very important to us. Fourteen million families depend on this. It is a huge number of people who are dependent on this industry."

But Bangladesh's finance minister, Abul Maal Abdul Muhith, says he doesn't think the collapse of Rana Plaza is "really serious," or that foreign retailers will choose to pull out of the country.

"It's an accident, and the steps that we have taken in order to make sure that it doesn't happen, they are quite elaborate, and I believe that it will be appreciated by all," Muhith said, according to Al-Jazeera. "These are individual cases of ... accidents. It happens everywhere."

As the BBC reports:

"While some observers are calling this a wake-up call, others point to evidence that this is simply part of a pattern of tragic accidents after which little changes.

"A very similar building collapse in the same town seven years ago killed 64 garment workers. There have also been fires, stampedes and other incidents at various garment factories in Bangladesh, causing hundreds of deaths.

"Last year, more than 100 workers perished in a fire at Tazreen Fashions in Ashulia, a township near Dhaka."

As the BBC notes, the garment industry accounts for 80 percent of Bangladesh's annual export income and provides employment for 4 million people in the impoverished nation.

But it has also spawned corruption and a mafia-like atmosphere, says Jim Yardley, South Asia bureau chief at The New York Times.

Speaking with NPR's Morning Edition, Yardley says the building's owner, Mohammed Sohel Rana, was "feared" as a wealthy strongman who got his way.

"When the garment industry arrived, land values shot through the roof. So guys like [Rana] gobbled up land and built up a quick factory, and then factory owners lease your building, and you can make a lot of quick money," Yardley says.

Rana "controlled his own private militia," Yardley adds. "He muscled people out of the way to get the land to build this building. He typifies the sort of gangsterism that exists at the local level.

"So, I think that when the building collapsed, [ordinary Bangladeshis] were outraged. They were particularly outraged because there was a warning," he says, referring to a large crack that appeared in the building and caused people to rush out of the building the day before the collapse.

"There were reporters there, and they interviewed Rana — there's footage of him on television the night before the disaster and even the morning of saying it's just a superficial crack — it's no big deal," Yardley says.

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