DHAKA: Bangladeshi police hunted a fugitive factory boss on Tuesday after claims that workers making cheap clothes for Western firms including Walmart were told that an alarm for a deadly fire was a routine drill.
About 1,000 workers took part in a second day of demonstrations against dangerous factory conditions as the country held a national day of mourning for the 110 killed in the inferno.
Green and red Bangladeshi flags flew at half mast alongside black flags on top of government offices and the nation’s 4,500 garment factories.
Two government inquiries have already been set up to try to establish the cause of the fire which broke out late Saturday at the Tazreen factory 30 kilometers (20 miles) outside the capital Dhaka.
It was the worst ever fire to hit Bangladesh’s garment industry, which employs three million and is the mainstay of the poverty-stricken country’s economy.
Dhaka police chief Habibur Rahman said officers wanted to interrogate Tazreen’s owner Delwar Hossain about alleged violations of building rules after inspectors found the nine-story factory only had permission for three floors.
“We shall also quiz him about allegations from survivors that his managers did not allow the workers to leave the factory when the fire broke out,” Rahman told AFP.
“As the smoke spread, the managers even told the workers that it was a fire drill, nothing to be afraid of.”
Police had opened a murder investigation as a result of criminal negligence at the plant, Rahman added. “We have launched a search for him and the managers but so far we have not been able to trace them.”
The search was launched as a fresh protest was held in the Ashulia industrial area, home to about 500 factories who sew clothing for global retailers.
Witnesses said around 1,000 workers took part in the march, holding black flags and chanting slogans demanding justice for the victims as well as denouncing the “death trap” working conditions.
On Monday several thousand workers held marches in Ashulia demanding Hossain’s arrest.
Bangladesh is the world’s second largest clothes exporter with overseas garment sales topping $19 billion last year, or 80 percent of national exports.
Forty percent of Bangladesh’s industrial workforce is employed in the sector but conditions are often basic and safety standards low.
Around 700 garment workers have been killed in dozens of fires since 2006, according to the Clean Clothes Campaign, an Amsterdam-based textile rights group.
But none of the owners have so far faced prosecution for poor safety conditions. Campaigners say Western firms whose clothes are made in Bangladesh hide behind flimsy safety audits to help drive down costs.
Walmart ends ties with supplier
After European chain C&A and Hong Kong-based Li & Fung had confirmed they had orders at Tazreen, the US retail giant Walmart has now acknowledged some of its products were made there.
“A supplier subcontracted work to this factory without authorization and in direct violation of our policies,” Walmart said in a statement Monday.
“Today, we have terminated the relationship with that supplier.
“The fact that this occurred is extremely troubling to us, and we will continue to work across the apparel industry to improve fire safety education and training in Bangladesh.”
Labour activist Kalpona Akter, who took pictures of garments and labels left on Tazreen’s scorched floors, said other brands being made there included ENYCE, owned by the US rapper Sean Combs who is better known as Puff Daddy or P Diddy.
The European Union, the biggest market for Bangladeshi clothing, deplored the “appalling incident” Tuesday and called for better working conditions.
Witnesses of Saturday night’s blaze told how some desperate workers leapt to their deaths from upper floors as they tried to escape.
Fifty-five victims, whose bodies were charred beyond recognition, are due to be buried en masse Tuesday at a state graveyard after a funeral.
“We have kept their DNA samples so that we can identify their relatives for compensation,” Dhaka district commissioner Yusuf Harun told AFP.