DHAKA: Garment workers in Bangladesh have staged mass protests to demand the end of "deathtrap" labour conditions after the country's worst-ever textile factory fire in which at least 110 employees died.
Survivors of Saturday night's fire joined several thousand colleagues blocking a highway during a march in the manufacturing hub of Ashulia, outside the capital Dhaka, with some protesters throwing stones at one factory.
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Deadly factory fire in Bangladesh
Fire fighters pull bodies from the smouldering remains of a clothing factory, after a fire kills as many as 110 people.
Bangladesh's chief inspector of factories, Habibul Islam, said the nine-storey Tazreen factory where the blaze broke out, which was built in 2009, had permission for only three storeys.
"They expanded the building without our approval," he said.
Ashulia's more than 500 factories, which make clothing for top global retailers such as Wal-Mart, H&M and Tesco, declared a "holiday", fearing the protests could worsen and turn into large-scale unrest.
A Bangladeshi labour leader, Kalpona Akter, said she toured the factory after the fire was extinguished and found labels for a variety of global retailers, including Faded Glory, a brand she said was manufactured for Wal-Mart. Ms Akter said she also found labels for brands sold at leading European retailers.
‘‘These international, Western brands have a lot of responsibility for these fire issues,’’ said Ms Akter, the executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity. ‘‘In this factory, there was a pile of fabrics and yarn stored on the ground floor that caught fire. Workers couldn’t evacuate through the stairs. What does this say about compliance?’’
On Monday Wal-Mart fired a supplier that made garments at the factory.
‘‘The Tazreen factory was no longer authorised to produce merchandise for Wal-Mart,’’ Kevin Gardner, a Wal-Mart spokesman, said. ‘‘A supplier subcontracted work to this factory without authorisation and in direct violation of our policies. Today, we have terminated the relationship with that supplier.’’
Mr Gardner declined to name the supplier.
The head of a garment union, Babul Akter, said most workers were in shock. "They want to see safety improvements to these deathtrap factories," .
The protesters chanted slogans, including a demand for Tazreen's bosses to be brought to justice.
These international, Western brands have a lot of responsibility for these fire issues.Kalpona Akter, labour leader
The local police chief, Badrul Alam, said officers had opened a murder investigation as a result of criminal negligence.
"We won't spare anyone," he promised as the prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, announced a day of mourning for the dead on Tuesday, when all factories will be closed.
Two government inquiries and the police investigation are trying to establish if the owners were to blame for the fire, though the cause has not yet been determined.
Dozens of workplace fires have killed more than 600 employees in Bangladesh's booming garment industry since 2006, according to the Clean Clothes Campaign, a textile rights group based in the Netherlands.
But none of the owners have so far faced prosecution for poor safety conditions.
Another blaze on Monday at a 12-storey building housing four garment factories sparked fresh scenes of panic as workers rushed to safety.
The latest fire caused widespread damage and rescue teams searched the building for workers feared to have suffocated but there were no casualties.
Bangladesh has emerged as the world's second-largest clothes exporter, with overseas garment sales topping $US19 billion ($18.25 billion) last year, or 80 per cent of national exports.
The sector is the mainstay of the poverty-stricken country's economy, employing 40 per cent of its industrial workforce, but work conditions are often basic and safety standards low.
Agence France-Presse, The New York Times, Bloomberg