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Furor Grows in Bangladesh in Wake of Fire

As protests continued in Dhaka, Bangladesh, police arrested three supervisors of the plant’s owner, Tazreen Fashions Ltd.

As protests continued in Dhaka, Bangladesh, after the deadly fire at a garment factory on Saturday, the police arrested three supervisors of the plant’s owner, Tazreen Fashions Ltd., and international groups called on major retailers and apparel brands to pressure the Bangladeshi government to improve working conditions in the apparel industry.

This story first appeared in the November 29, 2012 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

Earlier estimates had put the number at 119 dead, but the official figure appears to be 111 dead. There were about 1,800 workers at the factory in Ashulia, near to Dhaka, when the fire broke out.

Senior Judicial Magistrate Wasim Sheikh put the three officials from the factory on a five-day remand. They include Dulal Uddin, administrative officer; Hamidul Islam Lavlu, store in-charge and Al Amin, security supervisor of Tazreen Fashions Ltd.

RELATED STORY: Bangladesh Factory Fire Ruled Arson >>

The arrest was based on a report by an investigator who said the three officials, who usually control the garment workers, padlocked all the collapsible gates when the fire broke out at the factory on Saturday.

Habibur Rahman, superintendent Dhaka district police chief, said the three also provided wrong information to the workers when the fire broke out.

Protests continued in Dhaka on Wednesday despite the government response to the situation: the country’s interior minister blamed the fire on arsonists on Tuesday, which had been declared a day of mourning in the country. Three separate investigations into the incident have also been instituted.

But the Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Global Labor & Human Rights released a report Wednesday presenting eyewitness accounts to the fire and countering the Bangladesh government’s claims that the fire was an act of arson.

The institute is charging criminal negligence, alleging that at least one factory supervisor, based on employees’ accounts, deliberately locked workers in while the factory burned. Bangladesh’s interior minister said Tuesday the fire was an act of sabotage.

“Now the government of Bangladesh is once again crying ‘sabotage,’ hinting that there is some evil plot to attack the Tazreen Fashions factory,” said Charles Kernaghan, executive director of the institute.

Kernaghan said institute associates were in Bangladesh when the fire broke out and interviewed employees of Tazreen Fashions. One is quoted in the report as saying that the factory’s production manager allegedly forced workers to continue to work despite their pleas to escape. Workers also believe the death toll reached at least 200, much higher than the reported 111 fatalities.

“In reality, the labels, the owner of the Tazreen factory and the government of Bangladesh have done almost nothing to hold Tazreen or other factories accountable or to guarantee the fundamental rights of the more than 3.5 million mostly young women workers who are abused under miserable sweatshop conditions,” said Kernaghan, who has spent years reporting abuse and advocating for workers’ rights in the garment industry in Bangladesh and elsewhere.

He challenged Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Sean Combs’ Enyce label, Sears Holdings Corp., C&A and Li & Fung Ltd. for allegedly sourcing through contractors with Tazreen Fashions.

“How is it possible [they] all failed to see the obvious illegal sweatshop conditions at the Tazreen factory over the last two-and-a-half years?” Kernaghan asked. “If the labels had spoken to even one worker at the Tazreen factory, they would have learned the truth.”

Wal-Mart said Monday it has terminated the relationship with a supplier that subcontracted work to Tazreen Fashions because it was a direct violation of the retailers’ policies. The retail giant also pledged to help improve fire safety education and training in Bangladesh.

Li & Fung and German mass-retailer C&A have both acknowledged having orders pending with the factory when the fire broke out on Saturday night. Li & Fung said it will compensate victims’ families and set up an education fund for their children.

Kernaghan said until the Bangladesh government allows workers to organize unions and bargain collectively, “nothing will change.”

U.S. and international labor and human rights groups sent a letter to U.S. Labor Secretary Hilda Solis and several European government labor officials on Wednesday, calling on authorities to press brands and retailers to sign onto a joint memorandum of understanding with a group of nongovernmental organizations and international and Bangladeshi trade unions, known as the “Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement.”

The agreement, which includes the Clean Clothes Campaign, Worker Rights Consortium, the International Labor Rights Forum, Maquila Solidarity Network and trade unions is focused on the goal of bringing together the Bangladeshi government and brand owners and retailers to work to create a safe and sustainable work environment in Bangladesh. It aims to implement a fire and building safety program in Bangladesh apparel factories and would establish a two-year program to enact in-factory enforcement, develop a worker complaint process and mechanisms for workers to report health and safety risks, set up inspections by independent fire safety experts, implement public reporting of all inspections, establish a central role for unions and create a binding contract between the brands and worker representatives.

PVH Corp. and German retailer Tchibo have signed onto the agreement, but it will not take effect until a specified minimum number of companies have signed it.

In their letter to Solis, the groups likened the tragic fire at Tazreen Fashions to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York more than a century ago.

“This disaster is only the latest in a series of deadly factory fires that have taken the lives of hundreds of garment workers in Bangladesh and Pakistan,” the letter stated. “Unfortunately, the brand-controlled monitoring systems have failed to protect workers’ lives and these unnecessary deaths will continue unless and until brands agree to meaningful reforms in their supply chains in South Asia,” the groups said, calling on Solis and European officials to urge companies to take more stringent steps by signing onto their agreement.

“The agreement we are proposing involves a number of critical elements that distinguish it from the voluntary corporate social responsibility programs that have allowed these deadly fires to continue,” said Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium.

“Brands need to prevent any more unnecessary factory worker deaths,” said Tessel Pauli, of the Clean Clothes Campaign. “Signing this agreement and working with trade unions in Bangladesh is the first essential step.”

Workers unions in Bangladesh are in no rush to accept small peace offerings from the government and plan a meeting on Thursday to press demands for increased safety for garment workers.

“Whatever may be the reason — arson or sabotage — the main point is that security measures and safety measures are not enough at garment factories and that many of the factory owners are irresponsible. Their factories are insured but the workers have no such insurance,” said Rokeya Kabir, founder and executive director of the Bangladesh Nari Progati Sangha. She is also the chairwoman of the Association of Development Agencies Bangladesh, which is the largest umbrella organization of nongovernmental organizations in Bangladesh.

“The prime minister declared a day of solidarity but that is not enough. The government needs to do more. Bangladesh garment workers earn the least amounts in Asia and need to have better working conditions,” she said.

Global companies such as Wal-Mart, Tesco plc and C&A have been part of the larger rhetoric as workers demand that international firms spend more on ensuring the safety of garment workers.

“This is a critical point. The garment workers don’t want the buyers to go away, they just want them to come in and increase security measures. They would also like global brands to raise their buying costs, which would help [lead to] better wages for the workers,” Kabir said.