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november 26, 2012 • 10:47 AM • last update 11:14 AM

Thousands protest in Bangladesh after deadly blaze

A worker calls for help as he is trapped in an 11-storey garment factory building where a fire had broken out, in the suburb of Uttara in Dhaka November 26, 2012.
Foto: Stringer / Reuters

Thousands of angry textile workers demonstrated in the outskirts of Dhaka on Monday after a fire swept through a garment workshop at the weekend, killing more than 100 people in Bangladesh's worst-ever factory blaze.

The fire has put a spotlight on global retailers that source clothes from Bangladesh, where the cost of labor is low - as little as $37 a month for some workers - and rights groups have called on big-brand firms to sign up to a fire safety program.

Workers from Tazreen Fashions and residents blocked roads and forced the closure of other factories in the industrial suburb of Ashulia, where the huge fire started on Saturday, demanding those responsible for the disaster be punished.

"I haven't been able to find my mother," said one worker, who gave her name as Shahida. "I demand justice, I demand that the owner be arrested."

Police and officials said narrow exits in the nine-storey building trapped workers inside, killing 111 people and injuring more than 150.

"This disastrous fire incident was a result of continuing neglect of workers' safety and their welfare," said Amirul Haque Amin, president of Bangladesh's National Garment Workers Federation.

"Whenever a fire or accident occurs, the government sets up an investigation and the authorities - including factory owners - pay out some money and hold out assurances to improve safety standards and working conditions. But they never do it."

PRESSURE ON GLOBAL FIRMS

Working conditions at Bangladeshi factories are notoriously poor, with little enforcement of safety laws. Overcrowding and locked fire doors are common.

More than 300 factories near the capital shut for almost a week this year as workers demanded higher wages and better conditions.

At least 500 people have died in clothing factory accidents in Bangladesh since 2006, according to fire brigade officials.

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

The International Labor Rights Forum (ILRF) said that U.S.-based PVH Corp, whose brands include Calvin Klein, Tommy Hilfiger and Van Heusen, entered into an agreement with unions and other rights groups earlier this year to develop a fire safety program in Bangladesh, but others have not signed up.

"We hope the tragic fire at Tazreen will serve as an urgent call to action for all major brands that rely on Bangladesh's low wages to make a profit," ILRF Executive Director Judy Gearhart said in a statement on Sunday.

"Their voluntary and confidential monitoring programs have failed; now it is time to come together and make a contractual commitment to workers, and to involve workers and their organizations in the solution."

Hong Kong-listed Li & Fung said in a statement it had placed orders for garments from Tazreen Fashions which were being manufactured on the premises where the fire broke out.

It said it would provide relief to victims' families, and carry out its own investigation into what caused the blaze.

The European spokesman for retailer C&A said Tazreen Fashions was due to deliver 220,000 sweatshirts for its Brazilian stores over the coming three months.

He said an independent company normally audits companies and factories for standards and working conditions before C&A enters into a business relationship with them, but the audit of Tazreen Fashions had not yet been carried out.

A spokesperson for U.S. retail chain Wal-Mart Stories Inc. in India said the company was "trying to determine if the factory has a current relationship with Walmart or one of our suppliers".

Reuters Terra