Bangladesh factory fire ‘a sabotage act’ Govt gets probe report

DHAKA, Dec 17, (AFP): A fire that killed 111 workers at a Bangladesh garment factory last month was an act of sabotage and managers at the plant prevented victims from escaping, the head of an official inquiry said Monday.
Speaking to AFP after submitting his report on the tragedy to the government, Main Uddin Khandaker also said his team had recommended the owner should face murder charges over the deadliest fire ever at a Bangladeshi garment factory.
The factory, based on the outskirts of Dhaka, was supplying clothes to a variety of international brands including US giant Walmart, Dutch retailer C&A and ENYCE, a label owned by US rapper Sean “Diddy” Combs.
“We have found that the fire that gutted Tazreen Fashion factory in Ashulia was an act of sabotage,” Khandaker said.
“The statements of the witnesses revealed that it was an act of sabotage. There was no possibility of the fire originating due to an electric short-circuit or any other reason,” he added, without suggesting who might have triggered the fire or why.

He said the fire was small when it broke out on the night of November 24 in the middle of the factory warehouse in the ground floor.
“But there was no attempt to douse it. We suggested that the government set up a taskforce to find out the people responsible for this heinous act,” he added.
Khandaker also said his inquiry team would recommend that Delwar Hossain, the owner of the factory in the Ashulia industrial district, should face murder charges for “gross negligence and unpardonable crime”.
“We have suggested legal action against him and nine of his mid-level managers who barred the workers from leaving the burning factory,” he said.
The owner told reporters after the blaze that he believed it was started deliberately but gave no details.
The victims, mostly women who were paid as little as $37 a month, found themselves overcome by smoke or jumped from elevated windows. Firefighters have told AFP that all three of the fire exits led to the ground floor.
Fire investigators had earlier said the nine-storey factory lacked a valid safety licence at the time and only had permission for three floors.
Abdus Salam, a member of the inquiry committee, told AFP that the building lacked proper fire exits on the upper floors.
“All fire exits led to the ground floor. The staircases were not enclosed or separated, which allowed the smoke to easily spread to the upper floors,” Salam said.
“The workers were trapped or just had to jump from the upper floors. Still the casualties would have been much less had the supervisors allowed the workers to leave the factory when the fire broke out.”
The garment industry, which accounts for up 80 percent of Bangladesh’s $24.3 billion annual export, is the mainstay of the impoverished country’s economy. Its 4,500 garment factories account for 40 percent of the industrial workforce.
Around 700 people have been killed in fires in garment factories since 2006.
Western retailers have openly criticised Bangladesh factories for not ensuring workers safety but major brands continue to place orders.
But the panel said that no matter who set the fire, the owner of the factory also should be punished for the deaths because he neglected worker safety.
“If someone is responsible for such a huge number of deaths, that’s him. He has failed to ensure safety,” committee head Mainuddin Khandaker said of factory owner Delwar Hossain.
Some government and garment industry officials had alleged soon after the Nov 24 fire that it was an act of sabotage, though a fire official said casualties would have been greatly reduced if the factory had followed safety rules.
The factory lacked emergency exits and Hossain has said only three floors of the eight-story building were legally built. Surviving employees said gates had been locked and managers had told them to go back to work after the fire alarm went off.
Khandaker, an official with the Ministry of Home Affairs, told The Associated Press that committee members believe some people who worked at the factory were involved in the sabotage.
“Otherwise, how come they locked the gates? How come they asked the workers to go back to work even after the fire alarm?” he said.
Three factory officials suspected of locking workers inside the building were arrested days after the fire and remain in custody.

Khandaker said the panel recommended further investigation through a “powerful intelligence agency” to unearth the insiders.
No matter who is responsible for setting the fire, Khandaker said, “We can’t spare the owner of the factory. He is responsible for his failure to ensure safety. I have recommended specifically to bring the owner under the purview of law.”
Hossain “tried to defend himself” under questioning from the committee, Khandaker said. “But I can tell you clearly that he had serious negligence as he has failed to follow existing building code and safety rules.”
A phone call seeking comment from Hossain rang unanswered Monday night.
The committee recommended that the government form a “powerful task force” to ensure safety at garment factories across the country. The garment industry accounts for about 80 percent of Bangladesh’s exports, and workers’ rights groups say existing regulations have gone unenforced because officials fear the industry’s power.

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