Bangladesh Factory Where Dozens Died Was Illegal

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DHAKA, Bangladesh -- The factory where 112 garment workers died in a fire should have been shut down months ago. The fire department refused to renew the certification it needed to operate, a top fire official said. And its owner revealed that just three of the factory's eight floors were legal. He was building a ninth.

Government officials knew of the problems, but the factory kept running.

The Capital Development Authority could have fined Tazreen Fashions Ltd. or even pushed for the demolition of illegally built portions of the building, an agency official said, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to talk to the media. But it chose to do nothing, rather than confront one of Bangladesh's most powerful industries, he said.

"I must say we have our weaknesses. We could not do that," he said. "Not only Tazreen. There are hundreds more buildings. That's the truth."

Bangladesh's $20 billion-a-year garment industry, which accounts for 80 percent of Bangladesh's total export earnings, goes virtually unchallenged by the government, said Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, a labor rights group.

"These factories should be shut down, but who will do that?" she said. "Any good government inspector who wants to act tough against such rogue factories would be removed from office. Who will take that risk?"

Fire officials did challenge the factory, though they appeared reluctant to go too far.

When the factory's fire safety certification expired June 30, Dhaka's fire authorities refused to renew it, a fire official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.

A factory must be certified to operate, but the department usually gives factory owners some time to upgrade conditions. If they fail to do so, the department can file a court case to get it closed down. But it rarely does, and did not in Tazreen's case.

"These factories should be closed, but it is not an easy task," the fire official said. "We need to follow a protracted legal battle. Always there is pressure because the owners are influential. They can manage everything."

The Nov. 24 fire tore through the ground floor of the factory, which fills most of a block in the Dhaka suburb of Savar. About 1,400 employees were cutting fabric and sewing clothes for Wal-Mart , Disney and other Western brands.

Tazreen's owner, Delwar Hossain, said the government granted him authorization to construct only a three-story factory. But he added five more floors and was constructing a ninth when the blaze broke out, he said late Thursday.

When asked why he went ahead with the expansion, he responded: "My mental condition is not good. I am under pressure. Please don't ask me anything else."

In the two weeks since the blaze, the fire department has inspected 232 factories in the industrial area where Tazreen was located. It found that more than one-quarter of them -- 64 -- lacked fire safety licenses or safety measures such as fire extinguishers, water reservoirs and workers trained to fight a fire, said Dhaka fire chief M. Abdus Salam.

Those 64 factories will be shut down if they fail to address the issues within a month, Mr. Salam said.

In the meantime, they continue producing clothes.

world

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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