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Bangladesh rescue operations near end; death toll at 1,127

A.M. Ahad / AP

Bangladeshi soldiers stand at the site Monday, May 13, where a garment-factory building collapsed April 24 in Savar, near Dhaka.

DHAKA, Bangladesh — Bangladeshi salvage workers neared the end of their search for victims of the collapse of a factory building Monday, scouring the basement of the complex that crumbled in on itself and killed 1,127 people.

A series of deadly incidents at factories, including a fire in November that killed 112 people, has focused global attention on safety standards in Bangladesh's booming garment industry.

The toll of 1,127 — the world's most deadly industrial accident since 1984 Bhopal disaster in India — could be the final one as no more bodies were found Monday, said a spokesman at the army control room coordinating the salvage operation.

"The rescuers have reached the basement, where the chances of finding more dead bodies are very low," Capt. Tazul Islam said.

The site will be handed over to the district administration Tuesday on completion of salvage work, army spokesman Shahinul Islam said.

Reshma Begum, 19, a Bangladeshi woman who spent 17 days buried alive under factory rubble until her dramatic rescue Friday, made her first public appearance Monday and said she drew on mental fortitude to survive.

"After ... much time, I regained my senses and heard several voices (of other victims) around me who cried out and said, 'Please give me water.' 

"I replied, 'Where shall I get water?' I could not see anything, as it was dark everywhere," Begum said.

She said she eventually managed to find a packet of biscuits, which she ate, as well as two bottles of water that helped slake her terrible thirst. "After that there was nothing to eat," she said.

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About 2,500 people were rescued from the Rana Plaza, in Savar, a commercial suburb of Dhaka, after the April 24 collapse. Many survivors suffered serious injuries.

The disaster, believed to have been triggered when generators were started up during a blackout, has raised questions about Western retailers' use of the impoverished South Asian nation as a source of cheap goods.

Nine people have been arrested in connection with the disaster, including the building's owner and bosses of the factories it housed.

The government has accused the owners and builders of the eight-story complex of using shoddy building materials, including substandard rods, bricks and cement, and of not obtaining the necessary clearances.

Bangladesh's garment industry accounts for 80 percent of its exports. Low wages have helped lift Bangladesh to No. 2 in the global ranking of exporters, behind China.

Bangladesh ranked last in minimum wages for factory workers in 2010, according to World Bank data, behind Cambodia.

The Cabinet approved an amendment to Bangladesh's labor laws Monday paving the way for Parliament to allow garment workers to form unions without prior employer approval to help improve their job conditions, especially safety standards.

International labor and human rights groups had long campaigned for workers to be able to form unions without such approval. Average monthly minimum wages now stand at the equivalent of $38 after an increase of about 80 percent in 2010 in response to months of violent street protests.


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