Eight dead in new Bangladeshi textile tragedy

DHAKA (AFP) - A fire at a garment factory killed at least eight people on Thursday in the latest disaster to hit Bangladesh's textile industry, still reeling from the deaths of nearly 900 people in a building collapse.

The cause of the fire was not known but authorities said it broke out during the night on the third floor of an 11-storey building housing two garment factories in the capital's Darussalam district.

The owner of the Tung Hai sweater factory was among the victims, but there were no workers among the casualties as there was no overnight production, police and fire service officials said.

"It was a big fire but we managed to confine it on one floor," Mahbubur Rahman, operations director of the nation's fire service department, said.

He said the victims died of suffocation after rushing into a stairwell and becoming overwhelmed by "toxic smoke from burnt acrylic clothing".

Local police chief Khalilur Rahman said the fire killed "eight people including the owner, his four staff, a senior police officer, and a low-level police official".

"We have identities of seven people. But we have not identified the eighth," he added.

The fire comes as recovery teams are still finding bodies in the ruins of the nine-storey Rana Plaza garment factory complex that caved in on April 24 while some 3,000 garment workers were on shift.

Scores more bodies were recovered overnight, according to the army, which is overseeing the operation at the town of Savar, a suburb of Dhaka. An army spokesman, Lieutenant Sadiq Walid, said the overall toll now stands at 892.

Bangladesh is the world's second-largest apparel maker and the US$20 billion (S$24.56 billion) industry is a key driver of the impoverished country's economy, accounting for up to 80 per cent of Bangladesh's annual exports last year.

But it has a shocking safety record and Western retailers have been making threats to pull out of the country unless the authorities can come up with a credible programme to raise standards. Disney has already done so.

The government announced on Wednesday that it had ordered the closure of 18 garment plants, days after it promised to give "the highest consideration" to safety after talks with the International Labour Organisation.

Fire is a common problem in the 4,500 garment factories in Bangladesh, with many operations based in badly constructed buildings with substandard wiring.

In November at least 111 people died after a fire engulfed the Tazreen Fashion factory outside Dhaka, in the worst blaze in the history of the country's garment industry.

And in January eight people died in another factory blaze, including two underaged workers as they were making clothing for Spanish retailer Inditex, the parent group of the popular Zara brand.

Around 700 people have been killed in garment factory fires in the country since 2006, according to the Amsterdam-based Clean Clothes Campaign activist group.

Western retailers have criticised the factories for not ensuring worker safety, but major brands continue to place orders and critics say they turn a blind eye to the endemic problems.

Two senior US officials spoke Wednesday with American companies that buy garments from Bangladesh and encouraged them to relay concerns about factory conditions to the Dhaka government.

"Both the United States and Bangladesh have a shared interest in ensuring that the growth of Bangladesh's export sector does not come at the expense of safe and healthy working conditions or fundamental labor rights," said a statement from the State Department.