DHAKA // Clothing is king in Bangladesh, a country that exports more garments than any other in the world except China. It is responsible for four out of every five export dollars and has turned factory owners into members of parliament and leaders of sports clubs.
That strength has often been turned against the workers in those factories, especially those who complain about poor working conditions and pay that can be less than Dh145 a month. A law-enforcement agency called the Industrial Police is specifically assigned to deal with unrest in factories, and labour activists accuse government forces of killing one of their leaders. Employees are barred by law from forming trade unions, even though Bangladesh allows workers in other industries to unionise.
Workers hope that could change following the industry's latest tragedy, a fire Saturday that killed 112 people at a factory that made T-shirts and polo shirts for Wal-Mart and other retailers around the world. But they have their doubts.
"The owners must treat the workers with respect. They should care about their lives and they must keep in mind that they are human beings. They have families, parents and children," said Nazma Akhter, president of Combined Garment Workers Federation.
There have been many garment-factory fires in Bangladesh - since 2006, more than 300 people have died. But Saturday's was by far the deadliest. The Tazreen Fashions Ltd factory had no emergency exits, and workers trying to flee found the main exit locked. Fire extinguishers were left unused, either because they did not work or workers did not know how to use them. One survivor said that after the fire alarm went off, managers told workers to get back to work.
In an interview published Tuesday in Dhaka's Daily Star newspaper, the managing director of Tazreen Fashions expressed concern - about possibly losing foreign buyers. "I'm concerned that my business with them will be hampered," said Delwar Hossain. But there was no mention in the article of concern for victims or their families.
Bangladesh's Dh73.5 billion-a-year garment industry accounts for 80 per cent of its total export earnings and contributes a major share of the country's Dh405bn GDP.
The factory owners are a powerful group, holding parliamentary posts in both major parties.
An important reason for their success is cheap labour. Almost a third of the South Asian country of 150 million lives in extreme poverty.
The minimum wage for a garment worker is Dh140 a month, after being nearly doubled this year following violent protests by workers.
Yesterday, as Bangladesh held a day of mourning for the dead, 10,000 workers staged a second day of protests to demand better worker safety and the country's factories were closed as a mark of respect.
The factory itself is gutted. Its eight floors are littered with burnt clothes, yarn, machinery and furniture. Broken windows and black ashes are scattered on the floors and staircases.
Authorities have formed three committees to look into the incident.
"It was complete darkness," said Mohammad Zakir Hossain, a Tazreen worker who survived the fire. "I couldn't see anything but I started moving forward. I can hear shouts from many of my colleagues in the darkness, `Oh Allah, save me, save me'."
Mr Hossain said he was making Dh200 a month, plus about Dh1.35 an hour in overtime.
Wal-Mart has said the Tazreen factory was making clothes for it without its knowledge. Wal-Mart, which had received an audit deeming the factory "high risk" last year, said it had decided to stop doing business with Tazreen, but that a supplier subcontracted work to the factory anyway. Wal-Mart said it had stopped working with that supplier on Monday.
Wal-Mart and other companies linked to the factory's products have expressed sympathy for the victims and a commitment to improving worker safety.
Dan Mozena, the US ambassador to Bangladesh, also expressed his concern over labour rights. The United States and even many global buyers have been pressing Bangladesh to allow garment factories to form trade unions, but the government and industry have resisted.
The industry fell under more pressure after a labour leader was killed in April, his body found in a roadside ditch.