Bangladeshi police on Tuesday questioned the owner of a factory where 110 people died in a fire after claims that workers making cheap clothes for Western firms including Walmart were told an alarm was just a routine drill.
About 1,000 workers took part in a second day of demonstrations against dangerous factory conditions as the country held a national day of mourning for the victims of the inferno.
Green and red Bangladeshi flags flew at half mast alongside black flags on top of government offices and the nation’s 4,500 garment factories.
Two inquiries have been set up to establish the cause of the blaze that broke out late on Saturday at the Tazreen factory, where rights activists said trousers were also made for a firm owned by US rap star Sean Combs.
It was the worst ever fire to hit Bangladesh’s garment industry, which employs three million people – mainly women – and is the mainstay of the poverty-stricken country’s economy.
Dhaka police chief Habibur Rahman said officers were interrogating Tazreen’s owner Delwar Hossain about alleged violations of building rules after inspectors found the nine-storey factory only had permission for three floors.
“We’ve found him and our probe teams are quizzing him. We have not made any arrests yet,” Rahman told reporters.
“We will ask him about allegations from survivors that his managers did not allow the workers to leave the factory when the fire broke out.
“As the smoke spread, the managers even told the workers that it was a fire drill, nothing to be afraid of.”
Fifty-two victims, whose bodies were charred beyond recognition, were buried en masse on Tuesday at a state graveyard.
Leon Miah, 12, inspected the charred bodies one last time before they were wrapped in white clothing.
Holding photographs of his missing parents and eldest brother who were working at the factory at the time of fire, Miah cried out as ambulances took the bodies to the graveyard.
“I have searched for them at every hospital. I’ve also checked each of these bodies several times,” he said, as he was taken away by an aunt.
“The last time I saw my mother, she told me to be a good boy.”
Witnesses said around 1,000 workers took part in a fresh protest march in the Ashulia industrial area outside Dhaka, home to about 500 factories who sew clothing for global retailers.
They chanted slogans demanding justice for the victims as well as denouncing the “death trap” working conditions.
Around 700 garment workers have been killed in dozens of fires since 2006, according to the Clean Clothes Campaign, an Amsterdam-based textile rights group. But none of the owners have been prosecuted over previous blazes.
Campaigners say Western firms whose clothes are made in Bangladesh hide behind flimsy safety audits to help drive down costs.
After European chain C&A and Hong Kong-based Li & Fung confirmed they had orders at Tazreen, the US retail giant Walmart also acknowledged some of its products were made there.
“A supplier subcontracted work to this factory without authorisation and in direct violation of our policies,” Walmart said.
“Today, we have terminated the relationship with that supplier. The fact that this occurred is extremely troubling to us.”
Labour activist Kalpona Akter, who took pictures of garments and labels left on Tazreen’s scorched floors, said brands being made there included ENYCE, which is owned by rapper Sean Combs, better known as Puff Daddy or P Diddy.
The company was not immediately available to comment.
Dhaka district commissioner Yusuf Harun told reporters the authorities had kept the DNA samples of the unidentified dead in an effort to trace relatives for compensation.
Witnesses of Saturday night’s blaze told how workers leapt to their deaths from upper floors as they tried to escape.