DHAKA: The death toll from last week's collapse of a garment factory complex in Bangladesh crossed 500 Friday as the country's prime minister said Western retailers had to share some of the blame for the tragedy.
With bulldozers now clawing away at the mountain of rubble at the site of last Wednesday's disaster, the number of bodies being recovered from the country's deadliest industrial disaster has been increasing sharply.
Lieutenant Mir Rabbi, an officer in a special army control room set up to coordinate the rescue operation, told AFP the "death toll now stands at 501", a sharp rise on the figure of 441 compiled by authorities on Thursday evening.
Dozens more people are thought to have been buried alive after the eight-storey building collapsed on April 24 in Savar, which lies around 30 kilometres (20 miles) to the northwest of Dhaka.
Around 3,000 garment workers were on shift at the time of the disaster in the Rana Plaza compound which housed five different textile factories.
Spain's Mango, Britain's low-cost Primark chain and the Italian label Benetton were among the retailers who have confirmed having products made at Rana Plaza where the typical worker took home less than 40 dollars a month.
The collapse was the latest in a series of disasters to befall the $20 billion industry which accounts for 80 percent of the country's exports.
A fire at another factory compound killed 111 workers last November and witnesses say the April 24 disaster happened after bosses insisted staff remain at their workstations even though cracks had been detected in the building.
In an interview with CNN, Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina defended the industry's safety record, saying the recent deadly explosion at a fertiliser plant in the United States showed that no country was immune.
"Anywhere in the world, any accident can take place," she said.
Some Western fashion brands have said they are considering their futures in Bangladesh and Disney has already announced it is pulling out of the country.
The prime minister insisted that "Bangladesh now is a place for good conditions for the investment" but she also suggested that Western firms drawn to the country by the cheap labour costs could hike salaries.
"If they want to do business, these buyers, they also should also consider increase the prices of the garments so that the business can run properly and labour can get a good salary so they are also partly responsible for it," she said.
"What I is feel is that all the investors when they come here they get cheap labour and that's why they come here," she added.
The sector accounts for and more than 40 percent of the industrial workforce in Bangladesh which is one of the world's poorest countries.
Industry bosses are desperate to avoid others following the lead of Disney in pulling out of the country and have promised to come up with credible answers to concerns raised about factory safety.
At least 12 people have been arrested over the disaster, including the owner of the Rana Plaza compound.
One of the latest to be arrested was Abdur Razzaq, a civil engineer, detained on Thursday night after he allegedly gave the building all-clear on April 23 after inspecting the cracks.
The mayor of Savar has also been suspended for failing to shut the factories when the cracks appeared.
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