Arson Suspected In Massive Bangladesh Factory Fire

Details are still emerging in the wake of a factory fire that killed more than 100 textile workers outside the Bangladesh capital of Dhaka. Melissa Block speaks with Reuters' South Asia bureau chief, John Chalmers, about the latest from Bangladesh, where protests have raged for three days.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

Here is some of what's been found in the charred wreckage of a garment factory in Bangladesh: piles of clothes bearing labels sold by Disney, Sears, Dickies, Wal-Mart and Sean Combs. More than 100 workers died on Saturday when a fire swept through that factory outside Dhaka.

For three days now, thousands of protesting garment workers have taken to the streets demanding safer factories and punishment for those responsible, and today, three factory officials were arrested.

Reuters correspondent John Chalmers is in Dhaka and has been talking with survivors about what happened.

JOHN CHALMERS: Some of the reports we're getting that when the fire originally broke out, some of the supervisors in the factory told the workers to continue working, that it was just a test of the alarm and that there was no need to worry. Of course, it became very clear in very little time that there was indeed a fire and that there was smoke that's coming up through the building, and people started to rush for the door.

Now, this multi-story building only had a central staircase. There was no fire escape. And everybody headed for the central staircase in the middle of the building. Unfortunately, there were some bales of material which had been stored on the stairs and around the staircases, and that had already caught fire, and so it was very difficult for people to get down the stairs. Many of them returned back into the work rooms, smashed the windows and leapt out, and, sadly, many of them to their deaths.

BLOCK: I gather, John, by some accounts, that workers said that exits were locked. Is that what you've heard?

CHALMERS: There have been reports that that was the case, but we haven't come across anybody ourselves who said that there were locked doors.

BLOCK: What do you know about the role of the three factory officials who've now been arrested?

CHALMERS: Well, these were supervisors in the factory. They were not kind of managers. They were arrested yesterday, and today, they were paraded in front of the media. And they are going to be investigated for suspected negligence. The police are saying that one of the things they're looking into are those complaints from some of the survivors that factory managers stopped the workers from running out of the building when the fire alarm initially went off.

BLOCK: Now, the prime minister and interior minister have said that arson is suspected in this fire. What's the latest on them?

CHALMERS: That's right. They have not said who might be behind this. But a senior government official told me today that it could stem from local rivalries between apparel manufacturers, or it could be, he said, competitors from abroad who want to derail the astronomical growth of Bangladesh's garment exports.

Of course, critics would say that it's very convenient for the government to blame arsonists for the fire because, of course, it then deflects attention from the safety standards in their factories.

BLOCK: Talk a bit, John, about the role that the clothing industry plays in Bangladesh. It's a huge component of the economy, something like 80 percent of the country's total exports.

CHALMERS: That's right. It really is huge. Bangladesh is the world's largest exporter of clothes after China, so the world's second largest. So it's a really, really important business for Bangladesh. And there really is - many people say there's nexus between politicians in this country and factory owners. More than 10 percent of the lawmakers in Bangladesh are involved in the garment manufacturing business.

Critics say to keep costs low - and therefore their profits high - there's very little pressure for legislation or for implementation of regulations that would improve safety.

BLOCK: Do you see this fire doing anything to change that equation?

CHALMERS: Well, many are hoping that it - of course, that it will be a wake-up call. But some of the people I spoke to today really had very little hope that this was going to make any big difference.

BLOCK: This factory that burned was apparently making clothes for Wal-Mart and Disney and Sears among others, even though it had been given a high-risk safety rating in an audit last year. And Wal-Mart says the factory was no longer authorized to do business with the company but that one of its suppliers subcontracted work to them. Is that fairly common? Are there loopholes like that, do you think?

CHALMERS: Yes, I think there are. I think there's really not a lot of transparency in the supply chain for these big buyers like Wal-Mart and Sears and so on. So yes, I think it's very difficult for these big companies to have absolute certainty about exactly where their clothes are being made, and therefore very difficult for them to really be sure that they're being made in safe conditions.

Having said that, there are a lot of rights groups who say that the Western firms could do more, that, really, they are exploiting Bangladesh for its cheap labor and turning a blind eye to a lot of the labor conditions which, in many cases, are very poor.

BLOCK: John Chalmers is South Asia bureau chief for Reuters in Dhaka, Bangladesh. John, thank you very much.

CHALMERS: Thank you.

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