Monday, January 6, 2014

Bangaladeshi textile factory operator to face charges over fatal fire - Ben Doherty In Dhaka, Bangladesh, Sarah Whyte Sun-Herald January 5, 2014

Grieving families: Shafali Rahman, whose son Nayeem died in the fire. Photo: Ben Doherty

The Bangladeshi textile factory making material for Kmart, Target, Big W, and Just Jeans clothes, in which a massive fire in October killed seven workers, was reportedly warned by government inspectors a week before the blaze that the building was "dangerous to human life".

But despite an order to fix the biggest problems, the factory continued to operate without modification.

Australian companies using material sourced from Aswad Composite Mills in Gazipur say they did not know of the warning issued before the fire, and were not auditing the factory.

Aswad's owners deny there were any faults with the factory, saying criminal charges being laid by the government are "false and fabricated". They also claim the warning letter, a copy of which has been obtained by Fairfax Media, is part of a government cover-up.

On October 8, a fire broke out at Aswad when the chimney of a drying machine caught fire. The blaze spread across the factory's upper floor, fuelled by metres of fabric and drums of dye chemicals.

The seven workers who died were trapped upstairs.

Order forms from a host of Western fashion retailers were found in the charred wreckage. Australian companies Target, Big W, Kmart, and Just Jeans used material created in the factory.

On October 2, one week before the fatal blaze, the factory was issued with a formal notification by the Bangladeshi government that the building was unsafe for work.

The report, signed by government inspector Shahidul Islam, raised nine violations with the company, saying that the building was "dangerous to human life and security", and that the "fire extinguishers and other fire safety equipment were not maintained in an appropriate manner".

The inspector also found that the factory had been enlarged without approval; there was no record of regular maintenance of motors, electric switches and wiring; and the building was not properly ventilated.

"This is a legal notice to the factory after special inspection,'' the letter read. ''You are required to address these violations within seven days and report this to the authority. The authority is otherwise obliged to take legal action against the factory without prior notification.''

The Bangladeshi government says it will file criminal charges against the factory owners.

Aswad Composite Mills is owned by Palmal Group, one of Bangladesh's largest garment manufacturers, with 27 factories and more than 25,000 employees. It had exports of $US260 million ($290 million) last year. Managing director Nafis Sikder, told The Sun-Herald the allegations against the factory were "false and fabricated" and politically motivated.

He said the inspection, conducted on September 25, found the factory met all safety requirements. He said the government's letter, dated October 2, was not received by the factory until after the fire.

"This was a false letter. It was a cover-up by the labour department to show they were doing their job. After [previous accidents at] Tazreen and Rana Plaza there was a lot of pressure on the government to take action. This letter was to show higher-ups they were doing that. But it is contradictory to the report we have, which is 100 per cent positive."

Mr Sikder said the Aswad fire was the first for Palmal in 30 years in the industry. "This was a tragic incident at our company, and we have the greatest sympathy for all of the families affected. We are standing by the families of our victims … and we are being as transparent as possible."

The government is standing by its report. ''Our factory inspector found that the number of exhaust fans and the cooling system of the machine room was not sufficient and the walkway in the factory was very narrow,'' labour secretary Mikail Shiper said. ''We are going to file a case against the factory owners as they did not comply with the safety guidelines.''

The families of those killed have been paid 700,000 taka ($10,100) in compensation, from both Palmal and the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association.

Big W, owned by Woolworths, said it did not know of the formal warning issued to Aswad, but claimed it audited all factories from where it sourced its products.

"Big W had no direct relationship with Aswad Composite Mills," a spokeswoman said. "They were a supplier to a supplier, and we were not aware of this document from the Bangladeshi government."

Target also said it had no "direct contractual relationship" with the factory. "The factory had not supplied material for Target clothing since February," a spokesman said. "Target Australia is always looking to improve worker safety and conditions in its Bangladesh sourcing factories. Our decision to sign the Bangladesh Accord and our commitment to publish details of our factory partners are evidence of that commitment."

Kmart also no longer sources material or garments from the group of factories, according to its recently published list of its suppliers in Bangladesh.

"Kmart has recently released a strengthened ethical sourcing code with the focus on helping our suppliers and their factories improve the safety, security and conditions for people who work in factories we source goods from," a Kmart spokeswoman said. Kmart also offered compensation to victims and their families of the Aswad fire.

Just Jeans did not return phone calls from The Sun-Herald.

The Aswad fire was one of a string of disasters in Bangladesh's massive but poorly regulated garment industry. Five fires and building collapses killed more than 1200 workers in the 12 months between November 2012 and last October.

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