A fire yesterday destroyed a Bangladesh garment factory supplying Hong Kong-based Li and Fung and some big Western brands. The blaze was started by workers angered by rumours police had shot dead a colleague.
There were no initial reports of casualties from the fire that gutted a 10-storey building in Gazipur, 40 kilometres from the capital, Dhaka. Firefighters battled to put out the fire, which spread to four adjacent buildings.
"We are still struggling to control the flames," said fire official Mahbubur Rahman, adding that 22 fire service and civil defence units from Dhaka and nearby areas were scrambled to fight the fire.
Burned garments strewn across the floor bore the brand names of US retailers such as American Eagle Outfitters, Gap and Wal-Mart Stores.
Other branding on the clothes included Li and Fung, Marks and Spencer, Sears, Fast Retailing's Uniqlo and Inditex brand Zara.
The factory was among the 10 biggest in the country, said Mohammad Atiqul Islam, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, an industry body.
With the factory destroyed, workers stood to lose their jobs, he added. "Now all the workers are at risk of becoming jobless," he said.
As many as 18,000 people worked at the factory, its owner, Mosharraf Hossain, said. But they had left the building by 11pm, shortly before the fire started.
A police official in charge of the area dismissed as baseless the claim that a worker had died after being shot, adding that a group of workers assisted by locals had set the fire.
"We are investigating to find out the reason for this heinous act," said Mohammad Kamruzzaman, the officer in charge of the Joydevpur police station that guards the area.
Police and witnesses said tempers flared after a mosque loudspeaker announcement of a worker's death by police gunfire aimed at dispersing a road blockade by workers who had skirmished with police near the factory on Thursday morning.
Police broke up that clash with tear gas, but hundreds of workers later gathered, vandalised the factory, set two buildings on fire and blockaded the road, said Mushfiqur Rahman, a manager at Standard Garments, a firm in the building.
Police fired shots in the air to break up the workers' blockade and let firefighters in, he said.