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Bangladesh ends search for factory collapse victims

Bangladesh's military ended its search for bodies in the wreckage of an eight-story garment factory that collapsed last month because no more are expected to be found

DHAKA // Bangladesh's military ended its search for bodies in the wreckage of an eight-story garment factory that collapsed last month because no more are expected to be found.

The cancellation of the recovery mission came as the government agreed to allow garment workers to form trade unions without permission from factory owners as part of growing concessions for industry reform following the building collapse.

Soldiers and other workers have recovered 1,127 bodies from the April 24 collapse, with none found since Sunday night.

"The possibility of getting more bodies is thin," said Brigadier General Mohammad Siddiqul Alam Shikder. He said the army will now turn the site over to civilian officials.

A special prayer service would be held today to honour the dead, he said.

The collapse of the Rana Plaza building has focused global attention on hazardous conditions in Bangladesh's powerful garment industry.

The cabinet decision to allow trade unions came a day after the government announced a plan to raise the minimum wage for garment workers, who are paid some of the lowest wages in the world to sew clothing bound for global retailers. Both moves are seen as a direct response to the collapse of the building housing five garment factories, the worst disaster in the history of the international garment industry.

Government spokesman Mosharraf Hossain Bhuiyan said the cabinet approved an amendment to the 2006 Labor Act lifting restrictions on forming trade unions in most industries. The old law required workers to obtain permission before they could unionise.

"No such permission from owners is now needed," Mr Bhuiyan said after the cabinet meeting. "The government is doing it for the welfare of the workers."

Local and international trade unions have long campaigned for such changes.

Though the 2006 law technically allowed trade unions - and they exist in many of Bangladesh's other industries - owners of garment factories never allowed them, saying they would lead to a lack of discipline among workers.

Trade union leaders responded cautiously.

"The issue is not really about making a new law or amending the old one," said Kalpana Akter of the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity, a group campaigning for garment workers' rights. "In the past whenever workers tried to form associations they were subjected to beatings and harassment," she said. "The owners did not hesitate to fire such workers."

In recent years the government has cracked down on trade unions attempting to organise garment workers. In 2010, prime minister Sheikh Hasina's government launched an industrial police force to crush street protests by thousands of workers demanding better pay and working conditions.

That year police arrested at least six activists, including Ms Akter, on charges of instigating workers to vandalise factories. They were later freed, but some charges are still pending.

On Sunday, the government set up a new minimum wage board that will issue recommendations for pay raises within three months, the textiles minister Abdul Latif Siddiky said. The cabinet will then decide whether to accept those proposals.

The wage board will include representatives of factory owners, workers and the government, he said.

Bangladesh is the third-biggest exporter of clothes in the world, after China and Italy. There are 5,000 factories in the country and 3.6 million garment workers.

But working conditions in the Dh73.4 billion industry are grim, a result of government corruption, desperation for jobs, and industry indifference. Minimum wages for garment workers were last raised by 80 per cent to 3,000 takas (Dh140) a month in 2010 following protests by workers.

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