November 27, 2012 in Nation/World

Wal-Mart distances itself from fatal fire

Ties had been cut to garment factory
Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

Bangladeshis gather Monday outside a garment factory where a fire killed at least 112 people Saturday on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh. Bangladeshis were blocking the streets near Dhaka on Monday, throwing stones at factories and smashing vehicles, as they demanded justice for those killed in the fire.
(Full-size photo)

By the numbers

112: Number of people killed in the weekend fire.

300: Number killed over past six years in garment factory fires in Bangladesh.

4,000: Number of garment factories in Bangladesh.

$20 billion: Amount country makes per year from exports of garments, mainly to the U.S. and Europe.

DHAKA, Bangladesh – The garment factory in Bangladesh where a weekend fire killed at least 112 people had been making clothes for Wal-Mart without the giant U.S. retailer’s knowledge, Wal-Mart said.

Wal-Mart said the Tazreen Fashions Ltd. factory was no longer authorized to produce merchandise for Wal-Mart but that a supplier subcontracted work to it “in direct violation of our policies.”

“Today, we have terminated the relationship with that supplier,” America’s biggest retailer said in its statement Monday. “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 blaze on Saturday was one of the deadliest fires at a garment factory in Bangladesh and highlighted how its garment factories often ignore safety in the rush to supply major retailers in the U.S. and Europe. More than 300 people have died over the past six years in garment factory fires in the South Asian country.

Survivors of the weekend fire said an exit door was locked, fire extinguishers didn’t work and apparently were there just to impress inspectors, and that when the fire alarm went off, bosses told workers to return to their sewing machines. Victims were trapped or jumped to their deaths from the eight-story building, which had no emergency exits.

On Monday, about 15,000 Bangladeshi workers protested blocks from the gutted building in the Dhaka suburb of Savar, demanding justice for the victims and improved safety. Some 200 factories were closed for the day after the protest erupted. Demonstrators blocked a major highway, threw stones at factories and smashed vehicles.

Labor leaders hope outrage over the latest disaster will prompt change. Tahmina Rahman, general secretary of the Bangladesh Garment Workers Federation, said government needs to do more to punish factories for safety lapses.

“The owners go unpunished and so they don’t care about installing enough security facilities,” she said. “The owners should be held responsible and sent to jail.”

Wal-Mart did not say why it dropped the Tazreen factory. But in its 2012 Global Responsibility report, Wal-Mart said it stopped working with 49 factories in Bangladesh in 2011 because of fire safety issues. And online records appear to indicate the Tazreen factory was given a “high risk” safety rating after an inspection in May 2011 and a “medium risk” rating in August 2011.

For more than a day after the fire, Wal-Mart said it could not confirm whether it was still doing business with Tazreen, which was making T-shirts and polo shirts. The uncertainty illustrated how major retailers in the U.S. and Europe rely on a highly complex chain of foreign manufacturers and middlemen to keep their shelves stocked.

Tazreen Fashions is a subsidiary of the Tuba Group, a major Bangladeshi garment exporter whose clients include Wal-Mart, Carrefour and Ikea, according to its website. Its factories supply garments to the U.S., Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands, among other countries. The Tazreen factory opened in 2009 and employed about 1,700 people.

The government was unable to identify many victims because they were burned beyond recognition; they were buried Monday in a grave outside Dhaka. The government said today will be a day of national mourning, with the flag lowered to half-staff.

© Copyright 2012 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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