Thousands protest in Bangladesh, blaze draws US scrutiny

DHAKA/CHICAGO (Reuters) – Thousands of angry textile workers demonstrated in the outskirts of Dhaka yesterday after a fire swept through a garment workshop at the weekend, killing more than 100 people in Bangladesh’s worst-ever factory blaze.

The fire has put a spotlight on global retailers that source clothes from Bangladesh, where the cost of labour is low – as little as $37 a month for some workers – and rights groups have called on big-brand firms to sign up to a fire safety programme.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc, the world’s largest retailer, said one of its suppliers subcontracted work to the factory without authorisation and would no longer be used. A number of other retailers like Gap Inc and Nike Inc rushed to deny any relationship with the workshop.

Demanding that those responsible for the disaster be punished, workers from Tazreen Fashions and residents blocked roads and forced the closure of other factories in the industrial suburb of Ashulia, where the huge fire started.

“I haven’t been able to find my mother,” said one worker, who gave her name as Shahida. “I demand justice, I demand that the owner be arrested.”

Police and officials said narrow exits in the nine-storey building trapped workers inside, killing 111 people and injuring more than 150.

“This disastrous fire incident was a result of continuing neglect of workers’ safety and their welfare,” said Amirul Haque Amin, president of Bangladesh’s National Garment Workers Federation.

“Whenever a fire or accident occurs, the government sets up an investigation and the authorities – including factory owners – pay out some money and hold out assurances to improve safety standards and working conditions. But they never do it.”

Working conditions at Bangladeshi factories are notoriously poor, with little enforcement of safety laws. Overcrowding and locked fire doors are common. More than 300 factories near the capital shut for almost a week this year as workers demanded higher wages and better conditions.

At least 500 people have died in clothing factory accidents in Bangladesh since 2006, according to fire brigade officials.

Bangladesh has about 4,500 garment factories and is the world’s biggest exporter of clothing after China, with garments making up 80 per cent of its $24 billion annual exports.

Wal-Mart initially said it was not sure if it used the factory or not. The retailer later said that while Tazreen Fashions was no longer one of its authorized vendors, a supplier – which the company would not name – subcontracted there anyway.

“The fact that this occurred is extremely troubling to us, and we will continue to work across the apparel industry to improve fire safety education and training in Bangladesh,” the company said in a statement.

The International Labour Rights Forum said US-based PVH Corp, whose brands include Calvin Klein, entered into an agreement earlier this year to develop a fire safety programme in Bangladesh, but others have not signed up.

Retailer Gap said last month it would launch its own safety program after industry peers took too long to negotiate a common set of standards.

“We hope the tragic fire at Tazreen will serve as an urgent call to action for all major brands that rely on Bangladesh’s low wages to make a profit,” ILRF Executive Director Judy Gearhart said in a statement on Sunday.

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