Garment workers staged mass protests yesterday to demand an end to “deathtrap” labor conditions after Bangladesh’s worst-ever textile factory fire, as a new blaze sparked fresh panic and terror.
Ahead of the first of a series of mass funerals for the 110 victims, survivors of Saturday night’s blaze joined several thousand colleagues to block a highway and march in the manufacturing hub of Ashulia.
“Workers from several factories have left work and joined the protest. They want exemplary punishment for Tazreen’s owners,” Dhaka head of police Habibur Rahman said, referring to a plant near the capital of Dhaka where the blaze broke out late on Saturday.
Police said Ashulia’s more than 500 factories — which make apparel for top global retailers such as Wal-Mart, H&M and Tesco — declared a wildcat “holiday,” fearing that the protests could worsen.
“Most workers are in shock. They want to see safety improvements to these deathtrap factories,” garment union head Babul Akter said.
Local police head Badrul Alam said officers had opened a murder investigation as a result of criminal negligence. Two government inquiries and the police investigation are trying to establish if the owners were to blame for the fire.
“We won’t spare anyone,” Alam said as Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina announced a day of mourning for the dead.
Dozens of workplace fires have killed more than 600 employees in Bangladesh’s booming garment industry since 2006, but none of the owners have so far faced prosecution for poor safety conditions.
Firefighters battled for several hours to contain Satruday’s blaze, which broke out on the ground floor of the nine-story Tazreen Fashion plant, 30km north of Dhaka, trapping more than 1,000 workers.
Witnesses told how panicked staff cried for help and several leaped to their deaths from upper floors as they tried to escape.
Preparations have been made for the mass burial of the bodies of 59 workers who cannot be identified.
Their remains, most of which were burned beyond recognition, will be laid to rest at a state graveyard in a southern suburb of Dhaka.
“We are keeping the DNA samples of the dead workers so that we can identify their relatives for compensation,” Dhaka District Police Commissioner Yusuf Harun said, adding that the death toll was now 110.
Even before the first burials, a new blaze at a 12-story building housing four factories sparked new scenes of panic.
The latest fire caused widespread damage at the plant on the outskirts of Dhaka, but no casualties were reported.