Wal-Mart: Bangladesh factory in deadly fire made clothes without our knowledge

Bangladeshis and firefighters battle a fire at a garment factory in the Savar neighborhood in Dhaka, Bangladesh, late Saturday, Nov. 24, 2012. AP Photo/Polash Khan

DHAKA, Bangladesh The garment factory in Bangladesh where a weekend fire killed at least 112 people had been making clothes for Wal-Mart without the giant U.S. retailer's knowledge, Wal-Mart said.

Wal-Mart said the Tazreen Fashions Ltd. factory was no longer authorized to produce merchandise for Wal-Mart but that a supplier subcontracted work to it "in direct violation of our policies."

"Today, we have terminated the relationship with that supplier," America's biggest retailer said in a statement Monday. "The fact that this occurred is extremely troubling to us, and we will continue to work across the apparel industry to improve fire safety education and training in Bangladesh."

The blaze on Saturday was one of the deadliest fires at a garment factory in Bangladesh and highlighted how the country's garment factories often ignore safety in the rush to supply major retailers in the U.S. and Europe. More than 300 people have died over the past six years in garment factory fires in the South Asian country.

Survivors of the weekend fire said an exit door was locked, fire extinguishers didn't work and apparently were there just to impress inspectors, and that when the fire alarm went off, bosses told workers to return to their sewing machines. Victims were trapped or jumped to their deaths from the eight-story building, which had no emergency exits.

On Tuesday, the Bangladesh national flag flew at half-mast in all government buildings as the nation mourned the dead. The country's garment factories also closed as the government announced a day of national mourning to honor those killed in the fire.

Prayers were being offered at places of worship across the country, the government said.

On Monday, about 15,000 Bangladeshi workers protested blocks from the gutted building in the Dhaka suburb of Savar, demanding justice for the victims and improved safety. Some 200 factories were closed for the day after the protest erupted. Demonstrators blocked a major highway, threw stones at factories and smashed vehicles.

Labor leaders hope outrage over the latest disaster will prompt change. Tahmina Rahman, general secretary of the Bangladesh Garment Workers Federation, said the government needs to do more to punish factories for safety lapses.

"The owners go unpunished and so they don't care about installing enough security facilities," she said. "The owners should be held responsible and sent to jail."

Wal-Mart did not say why it dropped the Tazreen factory. But in its 2012 Global Responsibility report, Wal-Mart said it stopped working with 49 factories in Bangladesh in 2011 because of fire safety issues. And online records appear to indicate the Tazreen factory was given a "high risk" safety rating after an inspection in May 2011 and a "medium risk" rating in August 2011.

Bangladeshis identify the bodies of relatives who died in a fire at a garment factory, in the Savar neighborhood in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Sunday, Nov. 25, 2012. At least 112 people were killed in a late Saturday night fire that raced through the multi-story garment factory just outside of Bangladesh's capital, an official Sunday.
AP Photo/Polash Khan

For more than a day after the fire, Wal-Mart said it could not confirm whether it was still doing business with Tazreen, which was making T-shirts and polo shirts. The uncertainty illustrated how major retailers in the U.S. and Europe rely on a highly complex chain of foreign manufacturers and middlemen to keep their shelves stocked.

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