Bangladesh police to charge factory owner over deadly fire

A relative of a garment worker, who is still missing after the Rana Plaza building collapse, cries during a protest in front of the site in Savar, on Sunday, Nov 24, 2013. Bangladesh police said on Sunday that they plan to charge the owner of a garme
A relative of a garment worker, who is still missing after the Rana Plaza building collapse, cries during a protest in front of the site in Savar, on Sunday, Nov 24, 2013. Bangladesh police said on Sunday that they plan to charge the owner of a garment factory over a fire that killed 111 people as they wrap up an investigation 12 months after the tragedy. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

DHAKA (AFP) - Bangladesh police said on Sunday that they plan to charge the owner of a garment factory over a fire that killed 111 people as they wrap up an investigation 12 months after the tragedy.

Police officials said charges would be laid against 15 people including owner Delwar Hossain, security guards and managers over the fire that swept through the Tazreen factory that supplied clothes to Western retailers including Walmart.

"Delwar and his wife, who is the co-owner of the factory, are going to be charged with causing death due to negligence," police investigator Monsur Ali Mondol told AFP.

The fire - which broke out exactly 12 months ago - on the outskirts of Dhaka was the country's worst industrial inferno and shed an international spot light at the time on the appalling safety conditions of the country's US$22 billion (S$27.5 billion) garment industry.

"Our investigation is almost complete. We'll soon press the charges against around 15 people," said police inspector AKM Mohsinuzzaman Khan.

The tragedy was dwarfed by an even bigger disaster months later in April at the Rana Plaza garment factory complex also on the outskirts of the capital which collapsed killing at least 1,135 people.

Factory owners are rarely charged over such tragedies in the sector, which is a mainstay of the impoverished country's economy, accounting to up to 80 per cent of Bangladesh's exports.

The Tazreen factory owner, who has since the tragedy been barred from leaving the country, has been accused of breaching construction rules including building staircases that were too narrow and unsafe.

Mid-level managers and security guards have been accused of preventing workers from leaving the seven-storey factory when the fire was small and confined in the ground-floor's warehouse, police investigator Mondol added.

The victims, mostly women who were paid as little as US$37 a month, found themselves overcome by smoke or jumped from elevated windows.

Factory disasters are common in Bangladesh, home to 4,500 garment factories, where four million workers sew clothes for the world's top retailers and brands.

The country is the world's second largest apparel exporter after China.

This month the government raised minimum wages for workers by 76 per cent and launched inspections of factories in the wake of mounting criticism that authorities were failing to improve the sector.

The new wage of US$68 a month still makes Bangladesh one of the worst paid garment sectors in the world.