DHAKA, Bangladesh – Clothing is king in Bangladesh, a country that exports more garments than any other in the world except China. It is responsible for four out of every five export dollars and has turned factory owners into members of parliament and leaders of sports clubs.
That strength has often been turned against the workers in those factories, especially those who complain about poor working conditions and pay that can be less than $40 a month. A law-enforcement agency called the Industrial Police is specifically assigned to deal with unrest in factories, and labor activists accuse government forces of killing one of their leaders. Employees are barred by law from forming trade unions, even though Bangladesh allows workers in other industries to unionize.
Workers hope that could change following the industry's latest tragedy, a fire Saturday that killed 112 people at a factory that made T-shirts and polo shirts for Wal-Mart and other retailers around the world. But they have their doubts.
"The owners must treat the workers with respect. They should care about their lives and they must keep in mind that they are human beings. They have families, parents and children," said Nazma Akhter, president of Combined Garment Workers Federation. "Is there anybody to really pay any heed to our words?"
There have been many garment-factory fires in Bangladesh — since 2006, more than 300 people have died. But Saturday's was by far the deadliest, and has drawn international attention to labor practices as the government tries to encourage Western countries and companies to expand their relationships here.
The Tazreen Fashions Ltd. factory had no emergency exit, and workers trying to flee found the main exit locked. Fire extinguishers were left unused, either because they didn't work or workers didn't know how to use them. One survivor said that after the fire alarm went off, managers told workers to get back to work.
In an interview published Tuesday in Dhaka's Daily Star newspaper, the managing director of Tazreen Fashions expressed concern — about possibly losing foreign buyers. "I'm concerned that my business with them will be hampered," said Delwar Hossain. But there was no mention in the article of concern for victims or their families.
Bangladesh's $20 billion-a-year garment industry accounts for 80 percent of its total export earnings and contributes a major share of the country's $110 billion GDP. This from an export market created only in 1978, with a consignment for 10,000 men's shirts.
By 1982, the country had 47 readymade garment factories. In three years the number rose to 587. Now it has more than 4,000.
The factory owners are a powerful group, holding parliamentary posts in both major parties. The head of the prominent Dhaka sports club Mohamedan is in the business; so is a former president of the national cricket board.
An important reason for their success is cheap labor. Almost a third of the South Asian country of 150 million lives in extreme poverty.
The minimum wage for a garment worker is 3,000 takas ($38) a month, after being nearly doubled this year following violent protests by workers. According to the World Bank, the per capita income in Bangladesh was about $64 a month in 2011.
On Tuesday, as Bangladesh held a day of mourning for the dead, 10,000 workers staged a second day of protests to demand better worker safety.
The country's factories were closed as a mark of respect, and prayers for the dead were held in places of worship across the Muslim-majority South Asian nation. The national flag flew at half-staff in government buildings.
Relatives and colleagues gathered near the site of Saturday's blaze, many wearing black badges as a sign of mourning.
"I've lost my son and the only member to earn for the family," said Nilufar Khatoon, the mother of a worker who died. "What shall I do now?"
The factory itself is gutted. Its eight floors are littered with burned clothes, yarn, machinery and furniture. Broken windows and black ashes are scattered on the floors and staircases.
Authorities have formed three committees to look into the incident. An industry group has suggested that sabotage may be to blame, though fire officials have said it was not the fire itself, but the poor safety measures that caused the high death toll.
"It was complete darkness," said Mohammad Zakir Hossain, a Tazreen worker who survived the fire. "I couldn't see anything but I started moving forward. I can hear shouts from many of my colleagues in the darkness, 'Oh Allah, save me, save me.'"
Hossain says he was making 4,500 takas ($55) a month, plus about 30 takas (37 cents) an hour in overtime.
Wal-Mart has said the Tazreen factory was making clothes for the retail giant without its knowledge. Wal-Mart, which had received an audit deeming the factory "high risk" last year, said it had decided to stop doing business with Tazreen, but that a supplier subcontracted work to the factory anyway. Wal-Mart said it stopped working with that supplier on Monday.
Wal-Mart and other companies linked to the factory's products have expressed sympathy for the victims and a commitment to improving worker safety.
The European Union's delegation to Bangladesh said while it recognizes the importance of the garment industry to the local economy and European consumers, "the EU has always been very clear about the need to improve working standards and safety in this sector."
Dan Mozena, the U.S. ambassador to Bangladesh, also expressed his concern over labor rights and warned that any chaos in the sector could drive global brands away.
The United States and even many global buyers have been pressing Bangladesh to allow garment factories to form trade unions, but the government and industry have resisted.
The industry fell under more pressure after a labor leader was killed in April, his body found in a roadside ditch. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton raised concern about the killing, and workers' rights issues overall, during a visit to Bangladesh the following month.
Aminul Islam had complained before his death about police harassment, wiretapping and even being abducted and tortured, allegedly by a domestic intelligence agency. Authorities are investigating his death but have revealed nothing about their progress. Meanwhile, the leading Bengali-language Prothom Alo newspaper recently reported, citing an anonymous source, that top officials of the National Security Intelligence had regular contact with the main suspect before and after Islam's death.
Even as it fends off criticism, Bangladesh is seeking more business from the West, including pressing the United States for quota-free and duty-free access for its garment products to the U.S. market.
Earlier this month, senior executives from more than two dozen global brands and retailers visited Bangladesh in a bid to forge long-term agreements to source garments from its factories.
In September, Karl-Johan Persson, chief executive of the Swedish retail chain H&M, visited Bangladesh and said his 2,600-store group would increase its business relationship with the country.
Mustafizur Rahman, executive director of Bangladesh's leading independent think tank, said there is "hypocrisy" among buyers who "talk about ethical buying and ethical sourcing, but when it comes to price they refuse to offer a good rate. They often go to less compliant factories for cheaper rate. Being compliant is not cheap."
At the same time, Rahman said Saturday's fire "highlights inner weaknesses of a giant industry very essential for the country's survival."
"This has come as a strong warning," he said. "But it was too costly."
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch's Asia division, blames a "nexus of influence" between senior government officials and factory owners that "allows impunity to flourish." Until that changes, he said, government vows to improve safety should be treated with skepticism.
"Six months or eight months down the road, if history is any indication, we will have another factory fire, and more workers will be killed," he said.