ASHULIA, Bangladesh — At least 109 people died when fire swept through a factory in the worst-ever blaze to hit Bangladesh’s garment industry, officials said Sunday, as witnesses told of desperate workers jumping from upper floors.
Firefighters battled for several hours to contain the blaze, which broke out on the ground floor of the nine-storey Tazreen Fashion plant 30 kilometres (20 miles) north of the capital Dhaka late on Saturday.
Survivors told how panicked staff, most of them women, tried to escape the burning factory, which made clothes for international brands including the European chain C&A and the Hong Kong-based Li & Fung company.
“I smelt smoke and ran downstairs and found that the place was already full with black fumes,” Rabiul Islam told AFP as he surveyed the gutted ruins of the building where many of his colleagues had died.
“With another worker, I broke open an exhaust fan in the second floor and jumped to the roof of a shed next to the factory,” he said. “I broke my hand but survived somehow.”
Bangladesh is a global centre for clothes manufacturing due to cheap labour, with many popular brands using huge factories to produce items for export to Western markets. But work conditions are often basic and safety standards low.
Dhaka district commissioner Yusuf Harun told AFP the death toll was 109, including several workers who died while jumping from windows or the roof. About 100 people were injured.
“We laid the bodies out in the grounds of a nearby school and have now started handing them over to relatives,” Harun said.
The director of the fire brigade, Major Mahbub, who uses one name, said many victims died of suffocation as the blaze started in the ground-floor warehouse, trapping staff working on the night shift.
“The factory had three exits but since the fire was on the ground floor, workers could not come downstairs,” he said, adding that most victims were women.
Kalpona Akter, director of the Bangladesh Centre for Workers Solidarity, said the blaze was the worst that the nation’s garment industry had ever suffered.
The owner of the factory, Delwar Hossain, told AFP by telephone the cause of the fire was not yet known but he denied his premises were unsafe.
“It is a huge loss for my staff and my factory. This is the first time we have ever had a fire at one of my seven factories,” he said, confirming that the plant made clothes for C&A and Li & Fung.
Thorsten Rolfes, C&A spokesman in Berlin, said the company had commissioned the factory to make 220,000 sweaters to be delivered to Brazil.
“The victims and their families are in our thoughts and prayers,” he said.
Li & Fung was not immediately available for comment.
Tuba Group, the parent company of Tazreen Fashion, said on its website that the factory opened in 2009 and employed 1,630 workers making polo shirts, T-shirts and jackets.
It also said its factories make clothes for Walmart, Carrefour and IKEA, and added that the Tazreen plant had 60 smoke detectors and more than 200 fire extinguishers.
Relatives of the workers made phone calls to those inside the factory as it burned, local residents told AFP, and one witness said firefighters were helpless as the blaze took hold.
“I came to the factory premises and found workers crying for help,” Mohammad Ratan said. “I saw many jumping from windows.”
A police investigation was underway and no cause had been identified, but fires as a result of short-circuits and shoddy electrical wiring are common in South Asian factories.
A blaze in a Pakistan garment factory in September killed 289 workers and injured 110 more. Two of the owners are facing murder charges.
According to the Clean Clothes Campaign, a Amsterdam-based textile rights group, at least 500 Bangladeshi garment workers have died since 2006 in factory fires.
“These brands have known for years that many of the factories they choose to work with are death traps,” said its spokeswoman Ineke Zeldenrust. “Their failure to take action amounts to criminal negligence.”
Bangladesh has recently emerged as the world’s second-largest clothes exporter with overseas garment sales topping $19 billion last year, or 80 percent of national exports.
The sector is the mainstay of the poverty-stricken country’s economy, employing 40 percent of its industrial workforce.