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Bangladesh factory owners charged in fire

by GARDINER HARRIS New York Times News Service on December 23, 2013 10:09 AM

NEW DELHI — The police in Bangladesh charged the owners of a garment factory and 11 of their employees with culpable homicide in the deaths of 112 workers in a fire last year that came to symbolize the appalling working conditions in the country’s dominant textile industry.

The case is the first time the authorities have sought to prosecute factory owners in Bangladesh’s garment industry, so powerful that the state has long sought to protect owners from unionization efforts by workers and from international scrutiny of working conditions.

The fire at the Tazreen Fashions factory on Nov. 24, 2012, was later eclipsed by a building collapse in April that cost the lives of 1,100 workers and brought global attention to the unsafe working conditions and low wages at many garment factories in Bangladesh, the No. 2 exporter of apparel after China.

The fire also revealed the poor controls that top retailers had throughout their supply chain, since retailers like Walmart said they were unaware that their apparel was being made in such factories.

Among those charged Sunday were the factory’s owners, Delowar Hossain and his wife, Mahmuda Akther, as well as M. Mahbubul Morshed, an engineer, and Abdur Razzaq, the factory manager, according to local news reports.

Bangladeshi officials have been under intense domestic and international pressure to file charges against those deemed responsible for last year’s deaths. Fires have been a persistent problem in the country’s garment industry for more than a decade, with hundreds of workers killed over the years.

Bangladesh has more than 4,500 garment factories, which employ more than 4 million workers, many of them young women. The industry is crucial to the national economy as a source of employment and foreign currency.

Garments constitute about four-fifths of the country’s manufacturing exports, and the industry is expected to grow rapidly.

On the night of the fire, more than 1,150 people were inside the eight-story building, working overtime shifts to fill orders for various international brands.

Fire officials say the blaze broke out in the open-air ground floor, where large mounds of fabric and yarn were illegally stored.

But on some floors, managers ordered the employees to ignore a fire alarm and continue to work.

Precious minutes were lost. Then, as smoke and fire spread throughout the building, many workers were trapped, unable to descend the smoke-filled staircases, and they were blocked from escape by iron grills on many windows.

Desperate workers managed to break open some windows and leap to safety on the roof of a building nearby.

Others simply jumped from upper floors to the ground.

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