Mass worker protest hits Bangladesh after deadly blazes at 'deathtrap' textile factories

Worker demonstration grows as 'deathtrap' factories kill; fearing unrest could escalate, 500 factories declare wildcat 'holiday'

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 November, 2012, 5:45am

Garment workers staged mass protests to demand the end to "deathtrap" labour conditions after Bangladesh's worst-ever textile factory fire, as a new blaze sparked fresh panic and terror.

Ahead of the first of a series of mass funerals for the 110 victims, survivors of Saturday night's blaze joined several thousand colleagues yesterday to block a highway and march in the manufacturing hub of Ashulia.

"They want exemplary punishment for Tazreen's owners," said Dhaka police chief Habibur Rahman, referring to a plant near the capital where the weekend blaze broke out.

The factory is owned by Tazreen Fashions, a subsidiary of the Tuba Group, which is a major Bangladeshi garment exporter making clothes for international brands including Dutch chain C&A and Hong Kong-based Li & Fung.

Police said Ashulia's more than 500 factories, which make apparel for companies such as H&M and Tesco, declared a wild-cat "holiday", fearing that the protests could worsen and turn into large-scale unrest.

"Most workers are in shock. They want to see safety improvements in these deathtrap factories," Babul Akter, the head of a garment workers' union, said.

Local police chief Badrul Alam said officers had opened a murder investigation as a result of criminal negligence.

Two government inquiries and the police investigation are trying to establish if the owners were to blame for the fire.

Bangladesh's chief inspector of factories Islam said the nine-storey Tazreen factory, which was built in 2009, had permission for only three storeys and that the extra storeys were not authorised. "They expanded the building without our approval," he said.

Witnesses told how panicked staff, most of them women, cried for help and several fell to their deaths from upper floors as they tried to escape.

Bangladesh is the world's second-largest apparel exporter after China and 700 garment workers have died since 2005 because of unsafe buildings in the country, Washington-based International Labor Rights Forum said. But none of the buildings' owners have faced prosecution for poor safety conditions.

As wages have risen in China, companies such as Li & Fung, the world's largest supplier of clothes and toys to retailers, are tapping Bangladesh and other low-cost Asian countries.

Li & Fung said it would conduct its own investigation as it pledged financial assistance to the families of the victims. Wal-Mart said it is trying to determine whether it has a relationship with the factory.

''Fire safety is a critically important area of Wal-Mart's factory audit program, and we have been working across the apparel industry to improve fire safety education and training in Bangladesh,'' a spokesman said.

Tazreen was given a "high-risk" safety rating last year after an audit conducted by an "ethical sourcing" assessor for Wal-Mart, according to a document posted on the Tuba Group's website. It did not specify what led to the rating.

In its 2012 Global Responsibility report, Wal-Mart said it ceased working with 49 factories in Bangladesh in 2011 because of fire safety issues.

It added that it was working with its supplier factories to phase out production from buildings deemed high risk.

Even before the first burials, a new blaze at a 12-storey building housing four factories sparked new scenes of panic as workers rushed to safety.

The latest fire caused widespread damage at the plant on the outskirts of Dhaka, but no casualties were reported.

Bloomberg, Agence France-Presse, Reuters, Associated Press