November 28, 2012

Disney, Sears used Bangladesh factory destroyed by fire

Garments and documents left behind in the factory show it was used by a host of major American and European retailers.

Julhas Alam / The Associated Press

DHAKA, Bangladesh — Amid the ash, broken glass and melted sewing machines at what is left of the Tazreen Fashions Ltd. factory, there are piles of blue, red and off-white children's shorts bearing Wal-Mart's Faded Glory brand. Shorts from hip-hop star Sean Combs' ENYCE label lay on the floor and are stacked in cartons.

click image to enlarge

A Bangladeshi police officer walks between rows of burnt sewing machines in a garment factory outside Dhaka, Bangladesh on Sunday. At least 112 people were killed in a late Saturday night fire that raced through the multi-story garment factory just outside of Bangladesh's capital.

AP

An Associated Press reporter searching the factory Wednesday found these and other clothes, including sweaters from the French company Teddy Smith, among the equipment charred in the fire that killed 112 workers Saturday. He also found entries in account books indicating that the factory took orders to produce clothes for Disney, Sears and other Western brands.

Garments and documents left behind in the factory show it was used by a host of major American and European retailers, though at least one of them — Wal-Mart — had been aware of safety problems. Wal-Mart blames a supplier for using Tazreen Fashions without its knowledge.

The fire has elevated awareness of something labor groups, retailers and governments have known for years: Bangladesh's fast-growing garment industry — second only to China's in exports — is rife with dangerous workplaces. More than 300 workers there have died in fires since 2006.

Police on Wednesday arrested three factory officials suspected of locking in the workers who died in Saturday's fire, the deadliest in the South Asian country's less than 35-year history of exporting clothing.

Local police chief Habibur Rahman said the three will be questioned amid reports that many workers trying to escape the blaze had been locked inside. He said the owner of the factory was not among those arrested.

The three officials were arrested Wednesday at their homes in Savar, the Dhaka suburb where the factory is also located. Rahman did not identify the officials or give their job status.

About 1,400 workers worked at the plant, some 70 percent of them women. Most are from the north, the poorest region of Bangladesh.

Workers who survived the fire say exit doors were locked, and a fire official has said that far fewer people would have died if there had been even one emergency exit. Of the dead, 53 bodies were burned so badly they could not be identified; they were buried anonymously.

The fire started on the ground floor, where a factory worker named Nasima said stacks of yarn and clothes blocked part of the stairway.

Nasima, who uses only one name, and other workers said that when they tried to flee, managers told them to go back to their work stations, but they were ignored.

Dense smoke filled the stairway, making it hard to see, and when the lights went out the workers were left in total darkness. Another worker, Mohammad Rajib, said some people used their cellphones to light their way.

"Everyone was screaming for help," Nasima said. "Total chaos, panic and screaming. Everyone was trying to escape and come out. I was pulling the shirt of a man. I fainted and when I woke up I found myself lying on the road outside the factory.

"I don't know how I survived."

Rajib said the factory conducted a fire drill just three days before the fire broke out, but no one used the fire extinguishers. "Only a selected group of workers are trained to use the extinguishers. Others have no idea how to use them," he said.

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