Western brands linked to fire-hit Bangladesh factory

A Bangladeshi firefighter stands inside a damaged garment factory after it caught fire in Gazipur outside Dhaka, Bangladesh, Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2013. -- PHOTO: AP
A Bangladeshi firefighter stands inside a damaged garment factory after it caught fire in Gazipur outside Dhaka, Bangladesh, Wednesday, Oct. 9, 2013. -- PHOTO: AP

SRIPUR, Bangladesh (AFP) - Leading Western brands including H&M and French supermarket Carrefour admitted their links on Wednesday to the latest factory tragedy in Bangladesh after an overnight fire killed seven workers in a fabric mill.

Firefighters battled through the night to douse the inferno at the Aswad Knit Composite factory in Sripur on the outskirts of the capital Dhaka, which broke out when most of its 3,000 employees had gone home.

Workers said the blaze appeared to have been started by a malfunctioning knitting machine, while the country's top inspector said safety problems had been raised last month.

Police said most of the bodies found on Wednesday after the flames were extinguished were too badly burned to be identified.

"This latest fire to affect the ready-made garment sector in Bangladesh reflects the sad and shocking truth that not enough is being done to address the safety and health of garment factory workers," the International Labour Organisation's director-general Guy Ryder said in a statement.

An AFP correspondent who picked through the still smouldering wreckage found work order books containing names of clients in September including US brand Gap, British retailer Next, Swedish fashion label H&M, Australia's Target and France's Carrefour.

H&M, Gap, Next and Carrefour said their clothes were not made in the factory, but admitted they placed orders with the owner, Palmal Industries, one of the country's largest garment groups.

None of them had audited the burnt-out mill, which was a fabric supplier to other separate garment manufacturing units of Palmal.

"Once the cause is known, as routine Next will review its procedures, including the extent to which it needs to look further down the supply chain - particularly in high-risk areas such as Bangladesh," said a statement from the British retailer.

US retail giant Walmart confirmed some of its suppliers also sourced fabric from the mill. Although Walmart carried out inspections of garment-making factories, the scrutiny did not extend to mills that make fabrics for its clothes, it said.

"Given the special safety situation in Bangladesh, we believe the government of Bangladesh and the industry should consider whether to extend factory safety programmes to this next level of production," it said in a statement.

A fire at the Tazreen garment factory in Dhaka killed 111 workers last November, the country's worst such tragedy, and revealed unauthorised subcontracting of orders from Western groups including Walmart.

Industrial accidents are common in the country, where the collapse of the infamous Rana Plaza factory complex in April killed 1,129 people. The disaster focused attention like never before on conditions in the industry.

Safety standards at Bangladesh's 4,500 garment factories, where workers toil for 10-12 hours a day for a monthly minimum wage of US$38 (S$47), are notoriously lax and fires are a common problem.

The government promised a clean up after the Rana Plaza tragedy and 90 leading brands, mostly from Europe, signed up to a new safety agreement drafted by trade unions to allow greater scrutiny of their operations.

Major US retailers including Walmart refused to join in.

Bangladesh's chief factory inspector Bashirur Rahman told AFP there were "some safety issues" at the Aswad factory.

"Our inspectors inspected the factory on Sept 25 and this month served a notice to the factory to rectify them," he said, without specifying the issues.

Fire service officials said the factory had enough fire equipment.

The country has the world's second-biggest clothing industry, worth US$21.5 billion a year. It produces 80 per cent of Bangladesh's exports, most of which are destined for Europe and the United States.

Thousands of garment workers walked off the job last month, blocking roads and attacking factories outside the capital to demand a US$100 minimum monthly wage.

"It's quite clear that safety issues were ignored (at the Aswad factory)," Kalpona Akter, head of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, told AFP.

"This fire is yet another red alert for the Western retailers who still have not done anything for the safety of Bangladesh's millions of garment workers despite a series of fire and building disasters in recent months," Akter added.

Although the names of the victims in the latest fire have yet to be released, relatives who had gathered at the factory feared the worst.

Sumi Akter, 22, said she suspected her husband Bulbul Islam was among the dead.

"He called me by phone last night and said he would be back home in an hour. But after the fire I heard nothing from him," she told AFP.

Factory worker Mohammad Abu Saan said the fire started when a knitting machine burst into flames and the blaze spread to a warehouse.

"There have been quite a few small fires in the machine recently. But we managed to douse them. This time it was big," he said.