Bangladesh fire protests rage, supervisors arrested

Walmart claims supplier subcontracted to workshop without approval
By Ruma Paul and Nivedita Bhattacharjee
||Last Updated: 11/28/2012

DHAKA/CHICAGO (Reuters) — Three supervisors of a Bangladeshi garment factory were arrested on Wednesday as protests over a suspected arson fire that killed more than 100 people raged on into a third day, with textile workers and police clashing in the streets of a Dhaka suburb.

The government has blamed last weekend's disaster, the country's worst-ever industrial blaze, on saboteurs and police said they had arrested two people, who were seen on CCTV footage trying to set fire to stockpiles of material in another factory.

The fire at Tazreen Fashions has put a spotlight on global retailers that source clothes from Bangladesh, where wage costs are low — as little as $37 a month for some workers. Rights groups have called on Western firms to sign on to a safety program in that country, the world's second-biggest clothes exporter.

Wal-Mart Stores, the world's largest retailer, said one of its suppliers subcontracted work to the now burned-out factory without authorization and would no longer be used. But one of the most senior figures in the country's garment industry cast doubt on that claim.

"I won't believe Walmart entirely if they say they did not know of this at all. That is because even if I am subcontracted for a Walmart deal, those subcontracted factories still need to be certified by Walmart," Annisul Huq, former president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, told Reuters following a meeting of association members.

"You can skirt rules for one or two odd times if it is for a very small quantity, but no decent quantity of work can be done without the client's knowledge and permission," he said.

Wal-Mart, in a statement, reiterated that while it does have an audit and notification system in place, in this case a supplier subcontracted to the workshop without approval.

Most factories closed

Witnesses said that at least 20 people were injured on Wednesday in the capital's industrial suburb of Ashulia as police pushed back protesters demanding safer factories and punishment for those responsible for the blaze, which killed 111 workers and injured more than 150.

Thousands of workers poured out onto the roads, blocking traffic, as the authorities closed most of the 300 garment factories in the area. They were driven back by riot police using tear gas and batons.

Three employees of Tazreen Fashions — an administrative officer, a store manager and a security supervisor — were arrested and paraded in front of the media.

Dhaka district police chief Habibur Rahman told Reuters they would be investigated for suspected negligence.

He said police were investigating complaints from some survivors that factory managers had stopped workers from leaving the multi-story building after a fire alarm went off.

Representatives of the Tazreen Fashions factory, including the owner, were not available for comment.

CCTV shows apparent arson attempt

The country's interior minister, Mohiuddin Khan Alamgir, has blamed saboteurs for the fire.

Adding to the case for arson, a news channel aired CCTV footage showing two employees of another factory in the Ashulia area trying to set fire to stockpiles of material.

Police chief Rahman said a woman and a man, who were identified from the video, had been taken into custody.

The TV clip shows a lone woman wearing a mauve head scarf and traditional loose garment passing through a room with clothes piled neatly in various places on a table. She briefly disappears from view beneath the table and then is shown again walking through the room and out of camera range.

Smoke soon begins to billow, first slowly then more rapidly, from the spot where the woman was seen ducking under the table.

Workers come running in and try to douse the flames by various means. The woman in the mauve scarf re-enters the room and is seen helping workers in their efforts to put out the blaze.

Two other incidents in the outskirts of Dhaka — a fire at a factory on Monday morning and an explosion and fire at a facility on Tuesday evening — have raised concerns among manufacturing leaders that the industry may be under attack.

Talk of sabotage has also spread fear.

At least 50 garment workers were injured in a stampede as they tried to flee from their factory after a faulty generator caught fire in the city of Chittagong, the fire service said. Factory workers quickly put out the flames.

Bangladesh has about 4,500 garment factories and is the world's biggest exporter of clothing after China, with garments making up 80 per cent of its $24 billion annual exports.

Working conditions in Bangladeshi factories are notoriously poor, with little enforcement of safety laws. Overcrowding and locked fire doors are not uncommon.

More than 300 factories near Dhaka were shut for almost a week earlier this year as workers demanded higher wages and better conditions. At least 500 have died in garment factory accidents in Bangladesh since 2006, according to fire brigade officials.

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