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Associated Press
Bangladesh held a day of mourning Tuesday for the 112 people killed in a weekend fire at a factory.

Fire highlights workers’ strife

– 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 $40 a month.

A law-enforcement agency called the Industrial Police is specifically assigned to deal with unrest in factories, and labor 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 unionize.

Workers hope that could change after 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. “Is there anybody to really pay any heed to our words?”

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, and it has drawn international attention to labor practices as the government tries to encourage Western countries and companies to expand their relationships here.

The Tazreen Fashions Ltd. factory had no emergency exit, and workers trying to flee found the main exit locked. Fire extinguishers were left unused, either because they didn’t work or workers didn’t 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,” Delwar Hossain said. But there was no mention in the article of concern for victims or their families.

On Tuesday, as Bangladesh held a day of mourning for the dead, 10,000 people, including relatives and colleagues, gathered near the site of Saturday’s blaze, many wearing black badges as a sign of mourning.

The country’s factories were closed as a mark of respect.

Also Tuesday, about 2,000 members of 14 labor organizations held a rally in central Dhaka where leaders accused the government of neglecting the rights of garment workers.

Wal-Mart in dark

Bangladesh’s $20 billion-a-year garment industry accounts for 80 percent of its total export earnings and contributes a major share of the country’s $110 billion GDP.

The factory owners are a powerful group, holding parliamentary posts in both major parties.

The head of the prominent Dhaka sports club Mohamedan is in the business; so is a former president of the national cricket board.

An important reason for their success is cheap labor. Almost a third of the South Asian country of 150 million lives in extreme poverty.

The minimum wage for a garment worker is $38 a month, after being nearly doubled this year after violent protests by workers. According to the World Bank, the per capita income in Bangladesh was about $64 a month in 2011.

Wal-Mart has said the Tazreen factory was making clothes for the retail giant 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 stopped working with that supplier 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.

Seeking business

Even as it fends off criticism, Bangladesh is seeking more business from the West, including pressing the United States for quota-free and duty-free access for its garment products to the U.S. market.

Earlier this month, senior executives from more than two dozen global brands and retailers visited Bangladesh in a bid to forge long-term agreements to source garments from its factories.

In September, Karl-Johan Persson, chief executive of the Swedish retail chain H&M, visited Bangladesh and said his 2,600-store group would increase its business relationship with the country.