Published November 26, 2012
DHAKA, Bangladesh – Thousands of Bangladeshi workers blocked the streets of a Dhaka suburb Monday, throwing stones at factories and smashing vehicles, as they demanded justice for 112 people killed in a garment-factory fire that highlighted how industry and government have failed to protect workers from unsafe conditions.
Some 200 factories were closed for the day after the protest erupted in Savar, the industrial zone where Saturday's deadly fire occurred. Protesters blocked a major highway.
The government announced that Tuesday will be a day of national mourning, with the national flag flying at half-mast in honor of the dead.
Investigators suspect that a short circuit caused the fire, said Maj. Mohammad Mahbub, fire department operations director. But he said it was not the fire itself but the lack of safety measures in the eight-story building that made it so deadly.
"Had there been at least one emergency exit through outside the factory, the casualties would have been much lower," Mahbub said. He said firefighters recovered at least 100 bodies from the factory, and 12 more people died at hospitals after jumping from the building to escape the fire.
Local media reported that up to 124 people were killed.
Mohammad Ripu, a survivor, said Monday that he tried to run out of the building when the fire alarm rang but was stopped.
"Managers told us, `Nothing happened. The fire alarm had just gone out of order. Go back to work,"' Ripu said. "But we quickly understood that there was a fire. As we again ran for the exit point we found it locked from outside, and it was too late."
Ripu said he jumped from a second-floor window and suffered minor injuries.
Mahbub said the fire broke out on the ground floor, which was used as a warehouse, and spread quickly to the upper floors. He said many workers who retreated to the roof were rescued, but dozens of others were trapped; firefighters recovered 69 bodies from the second floor alone.
Many victims were burned beyond recognition. The bodies were laid out in rows at a school nearby. Many of them were handed over to families; unclaimed victims were taken to Dhaka Medical College for identification.
The garment-factory fire was Bangladesh's deadliest in recent memory, but such dangers have long been a fact of life as the industry has mushroomed to meet demand from major retailers around the world.
The factory is owned by Tazreen Fashions Ltd., a subsidiary of the Tuba Group. Neither Tazreen nor Tuba Group officials could be reached for comment.
The Tuba Group is a major Bangladeshi garment exporter whose clients include Wal-Mart, Carrefour and IKEA, according to its website. Its factories export garments to the U.S., Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands, among other countries. The Tazreen factory, which opened in 2009 and employed about 1,700 people, made polo shirts, fleece jackets and T-shirts.
Tazreen was given a "high risk" safety rating after a May 16, 2011, 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.
Wal-Mart spokesman Kevin Gardner said online documents indicating an orange or "high risk" assessment after the May 2011 inspection and a yellow or "medium risk" report after an inspection in August 2011 appeared to pertain to the factory. The August 2011 letter said Wal-Mart would conduct another inspection within one year.
Gardner said it was not clear if that inspection had been conducted or whether the factory was still making products for Wal-Mart. If a factory is rated "orange" three times in two years, Wal-Mart won't place any orders for one year. The May 2011 report was the first orange rating for the factory.
"Our thoughts are with the families of the victims of this tragedy," the retailer said in a statement. "While we are trying to determine if the factory has a current relationship with Wal-Mart or one of our suppliers, 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."
In its 2012 Global Responsibility report, Wal-Mart said it ceased working with 49 factories in Bangladesh in 2011 because of fire safety issues, and was working with its supplier factories to phase out production from buildings deemed high risk.
Bangladesh has some 4,000 garment factories, many without proper safety measures. The country annually earns about $20 billion from exports of garment products, mainly to the U.S. and Europe.
The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association said it would stand by the victims' families and offered $1,250 to each of the families of the dead. The association's acting president, Siddiqur Rahman, said on a talk show late Sunday that Tazreen's owner was to meet with group representatives on Monday.
"We will discuss what other things we can do for the families of the dead," Rahman said on Rtv, a private television station. "We are worried about what has happened. We hope to discuss everything in detail in that meeting."