Bangladesh factory supervisors arrested, protests rage on

The garment factory produced goods for numerous major retailers, including Disney, Wal-Mart and Sears.

DHAKA — Three supervisors of a Bangladeshi garments factory were arrested Wednesday as protests over a fire that killed 112 people raged on into a third day, with textile workers and police clashing in the streets of a Dhaka suburb.

The government has blamed last weekend's disaster, the country's worst-ever industrial blaze, on saboteurs. Police said they had arrested two people who were seen on CCTV footage trying to set fire to stockpiles of cotton in another factory.

Video: 3 supervisors arrested in Bangladesh factory fire

The fire at Tazreen Fashions has put a spotlight on global retailers that source clothes from Bangladesh, where wage costs are low — as little as $37 a month for some workers.

The garment factory was used by a host of major U.S. and European retailers, an Associated Press reporter discovered Wednesday from clothes and account books left behind amid the blackened tables and melted sewing machines.

Items included a hooded Mickey Mouse sweatshirt from Disney, piles of children's shorts with Wal-Mart's Faded Glory label, and clothes with hip-hop star Sean Combs' ENYCE tag.

Wal-Mart had been aware of safety problems at the factory and said it had decided well before the blaze to stop doing business with it. But it said a supplier had continued to use Tazreen without authorization.

Sears, likewise, said its merchandise was being produced there without its approval through a vendor. The Walt Disney Co. said its records indicate that none of its licensees have been permitted to make Disney-brand products at the factory for at least a year.

Charles Kernaghan, director of the Institute for Global Labor and Human Rights, said nothing will change unless clothing companies protect workers as vigorously as they protect their brands.

"The labels are legally protected," he said. "But there are no similar laws to protect rights of the worker."

Labor activists say retailers in the West bear a responsibility to make sure the overseas factories that manufacture their products are safe, and to argue that retailers must insist on more stringent fire standards.

Related: Fire highlights harsh lives of Bangladesh workers

Witnesses said that at least 20 people were injured Wednesday in the capital's industrial suburb of Ashulia as police pushed back protesters demanding safer factories and punishment for those responsible for the blaze, which also injured more than 150.

Thousands of workers poured out onto the roads, blocking traffic, as authorities closed most of the 300 garment factories in the area. They were driven back by riot police using tear gas and batons.

Three employees of Tazreen Fashions — an administrative officer, a stores manager and a security supervisor — were arrested and paraded in front of the news media.

Dhaka District Police Chief Habibur Rahman told Reuters they would be investigated for suspected negligence.

He said that police were investigating complaints from some survivors that factory managers stopped workers from running out of the multi-story building when a fire alarm went off.

About 1,400 people worked at the factory, about 70 percent of them women. Survivors said exit doors were locked, and a fire official said the death toll would have been much lower if the eight-story building had had an emergency exit.

The fire broke out 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.

Thick smoke filled the stairway, 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.

Bangladesh's fast-growing garment industry has long provided jobs and revenue for the desperately poor country, while turning out the low-priced products shoppers in the U.S. and other countries have come to enjoy.

But the industry has a ghastly safety record; at least 500 have died in garment factory accidents in Bangladesh since 2006, according to fire brigade officials.


The country's interior minister, Mohiuddin Khan Alamgir, has blamed arsonists for the fire.

Adding to the case for sabotage, CCTV footage aired on a news channel showed two employees of another factory in the Ashulia area trying to set fire to stockpiles of cotton.

Video: CCTV footage shows attempted factory arson

Police chief Rahman said a woman and a man, who were identified from the video, had been taken into custody.

The clip shows a woman dressed in a mauve head scarf and a traditional loose garment on her own passing through a room with garments piled neatly in various places on a table. She briefly disappears from view beneath the table and then is shown again walking through the room and out of range of the camera.

Smoke soon begins billowing, first slowly then more rapidly, from the place where the woman was seen beneath the table.

Workers come running in and try to douse it using various means. The woman first seen comes back into the room and is seen helping other workers in efforts to put out the fire.

Two other incidents in the outskirts of Dhaka — a fire at a factory Monday morning and an explosion and fire at a facility on Tuesday evening — has raised concern among manufacturing leaders that the industry is under attack.

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 Associated Press and Reuters contributed to this report.)