UPDATE 4-Thousands protest in Bangladesh, blaze draws US scrutiny

Serajul Quadir and Jessica Wohl
Reuters Middle East

* Retailers under pressure over use of risky labor

* Wal-Mart says supplier should not have used factory

* Consumer behavior seen unlikely to change

DHAKA/CHICAGO, Nov 26 (Reuters) - Thousands of angry textile

workers demonstrated in the outskirts of Dhaka on Monday after a

fire swept through a garment workshop at the weekend, killing

more than 100 people in Bangladesh's worst-ever factory blaze.

The fire has put a spotlight on global retailers that source

clothes from Bangladesh, where the cost of labour is low - as

little as $37 a month for some workers - and rights groups have

called on big-brand firms to sign up to a fire safety programme.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc, the world's largest retailer,

said one of its suppliers subcontracted work to the factory

without authorization and would no longer be used. A number of

other retailers like Gap Inc and Nike Inc rushed

to deny any relationship with the workshop.

Demanding that those responsible for the disaster be

punished, workers from Tazreen Fashions and residents blocked

roads and forced the closure of other factories in the

industrial suburb of Ashulia, where the huge fire started.

"I haven't been able to find my mother," said one worker,

who gave her name as Shahida. "I demand justice, I demand that

the owner be arrested."

Police and officials said narrow exits in the nine-storey

building trapped workers inside, killing 111 people and injuring

more than 150.

"This disastrous fire incident was a result of continuing

neglect of workers' safety and their welfare," said Amirul Haque

Amin, president of Bangladesh's National Garment Workers


"Whenever a fire or accident occurs, the government sets up

an investigation and the authorities - including factory owners

- pay out some money and hold out assurances to improve safety

standards and working conditions. But they never do it."


Working conditions at Bangladeshi factories are notoriously

poor, with little enforcement of safety laws. Overcrowding and

locked fire doors are common. More than 300 factories near the

capital shut for almost a week this year as workers demanded

higher wages and better conditions.

At least 500 people have died in clothing factory accidents

in Bangladesh since 2006, according to fire brigade officials.

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.

Wal-Mart initially said it was not sure if it used the

factory or not. The retailer later said that while Tazreen

Fashions was no longer one of its authorized vendors, a supplier

- which the company would not name - subcontracted there anyway.

"The fact that this occurred is extremely troubling to us,

and we will continue to work across the apparel industry to

improve fire safety education and training in Bangladesh," the

company said in a statement.

The International Labour Rights Forum said U.S.-based PVH

Corp, whose brands include Calvin Klein, entered into an

agreement earlier this year to develop a fire safety programme

in Bangladesh, but others have not signed up. Retailer Gap said

last month it would launch its own safety program after industry

peers took too long to negotiate a common set of standards.

"We hope the tragic fire at Tazreen will serve as an urgent

call to action for all major brands that rely on Bangladesh's

low wages to make a profit," ILRF Executive Director Judy

Gearhart said in a statement on Sunday.

Hong Kong-listed Li & Fung said in a statement it

had placed orders for garments from Tazreen Fashions that were

being manufactured on the premises where the fire broke out.

It said it would provide relief to victims' families, and

carry out its own investigation into what caused the blaze.

The European spokesman for retailer C&A said Tazreen

Fashions was due to deliver 220,000 sweatshirts for its

Brazilian stores over the coming three months.

He said an independent company normally audits companies and

factories for standards and working conditions before C&A enters

into a business relationship with them, but the audit of Tazreen

Fashions had not yet been carried out.


One expert on labor relations said it was highly unlikely

consumers would be moved to stop shopping at Wal-Mart just

because of the association with the burned workshop.

"Most people are just looking for a bargain and they don't

have the time or the inclination to find out who's making them

and should we buy this stuff or not," said James Gross, a

professor of labor in the school of industrial and labor

relations at Cornell University in New York.

The fire has drawn fresh attention in the United States to

working conditions overseas, but it is also not the first time

that American shoppers have been confronted with uncomfortable

realities about how their consumer goods are made.

Whether the news was about worker suicides at the Foxconn

plants in China making Apple Inc's iPhones, allegations

that Nike used child labor in Indonesia or claims of endemic

rape at border factories in Mexico, little has disturbed

American shoppers in their search for value.

"(We) know that the consumer sentiment in these markets is

not to pay higher prices, so the companies that import are also

looking for ways to cut costs, since it is a relationship," said

Munir Mashooqullah, founder of New York-based sourcing company

Synergies Worldwide.

"If consumers are not willing to pay higher prices, the

companies are not willing to pay more in manufacturing," said

Mashooqullah, who works with various Western retailers and

manufacturers in Bangladesh, Pakistan and India.

Few remember today, for example, the 1993 fire in Thailand

that killed 188 people, mostly young rural women seeking a

better life, manufacturing toys for top American brands.

An International Labour Organization case study on the fire

found that the factory had not been properly fireproofed and

that workers in general received inadequate protection.

That fire took the place in the record books of the Triangle

Shirtwaist disaster, the 1911 New York conflagration that killed

146 people and led to changes in labor conditions in the

American workplace.

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