Foreign labels found in latest Bangladesh factory fire

DHAKA (AFP) - The unlicensed garment factory in the Bangladesh capital where seven women workers died in a fire on Saturday was making clothing for Spanish giant Inditex and several French brands.

An AFP correspondent sifting through the charred remains of the Smart Export factory on Sunday found labels such as Bershka, a retailer owned by Inditex, Sol's, Scott and Fox, and G Blog, which is part of France's Gemo.

Sourcing by global retailers first came under the spotlight just two months ago, after Bangladesh's deadliest garment factory fire killed 111 workers who were making clothing for Walmart and a variety of Western firms.

The November blaze at Tazreen Fashion, which also had no fire department licence, highlighted the Bangladeshi apparel industry's appalling safety record.

The fire at the Smart factory employing around 300 workers broke out on Saturday afternoon, leaving at least seven female workers dead and 15 injured, five of them critically.

Worker Laizu Begum, 19, said the factory, which paid workers as little as US$37 (S$46) a month, had one of its doors locked when the blaze broke out during lunch break, forcing the workers to rush to the other door in a stampede.

"Burnt foam and clothing created huge smoke. The workers rushed to the first gate and found it locked. I survived as I was sitting close to the other gate," she told AFP.

Local police chief Azizul Haq said the father of one of the dead workers has filed a case against the owners of the factory for murder due to negligence, while the government has ordered a probe into the alleged gate-locking incident.

Fire officials said the stampede and suffocation caused the deaths.

Major Mahbubur Rahman, operations director of the Bangladesh Fire Service, said the factory had not received an operating licence from the service.

"It's just a factory in name," he told AFP. "The owners set up some sewing machines on a floor without taking care of any safety issues. It did not have any fire exit or fire equipment."

Fire is a common problem in the factories in Bangladesh, the world's second-largest apparel maker. Around 700 people have been killed in garment factory fires since 2006.

The industry is the mainstay of the impoverished country's economy, accounting for up to 80 per cent of annual exports worth US$24.3 billion last year.

Western retailers have criticised Bangladeshi factories for not ensuring worker safety, but major brands still place orders. Some have reportedly increased purchases since the Tazreen fire, due to cheap manufacturing costs.

International labour rights groups urged foreign brands and retailers on Sunday to join a labour-supported agreement to prevent future tragedies.

"After more than two decades of the apparel industry knowing about the risks to these workers, nothing substantial has changed: Brands still keep their audit results secret," said Ms Judy Gearhart, executive director of the International Labour Rights Forum.