Searchers look for more victims of Bangladesh fire

DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) - December 15, 2010

No more bodies were immediately found, said Nilufar Yasmine, a fire department official.

She said officials were still investigating the cause of Tuesday's blaze.

While it was generally thought to have been an accident, some believed it was caused by arson because of recent violent protests at textile factories over salaries.

The 10-story factory near Dhaka is owned by Ha-Meem Group, a local business giant that supplies major multinationals such as Gap and JCPenney.

Local media reported at least 29 workers died. The government would not give exact casualty figures, but the deputy general manager of the Ha-Meem Group, Delwar Hossain, said they had a list of 23 dead and 52 injured.

Some people waiting outside the factory said their relatives were still missing.

"I don't know anything about my sister, she did not return home," said Amena Begum.

The fire, which broke out on the upper two floors during lunch break, was brought under control overnight and completely put out by midday Wednesday.

Witnesses said at least five of the dead workers had been trapped in the building and jumped as it was engulfed by flames.

Thousands of workers gathered outside the factory Wednesday and demanded proper compensation as the group's owner, A.K. Azad, who also heads the Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry, visited the site.

The group announced Tuesday that it would provide 100,000 takas ($1,370) to families of the dead and would pay for treatment of the injured.

About 13,000 people worked at the factory each day, though most were outside buying lunch when the fire started.

Labor rights groups say safety standards are still inadequate in many Bangladesh textile factories.

In February, a fire at a sweater factory just outside Dhaka killed 21 people and injured dozens.

Bangladesh has about 4,000 garment factories that export more than $10 billion worth of products a year, mainly to the United States and Europe. Customers include Wal-Mart, Tesco, H&M, Zara, Carrefour, Gap, Metro, JCPenney, Marks & Spencer, Kohl's, Levi Strauss and Tommy Hilfiger.

Recent protests by low-paid garment workers have gripped the country. Workers demanding the implementation of a new minimum wage clashed with police at an industrial zone in southeastern Bangladesh on Sunday, leaving up to three people dead and 100 hurt.

Authorities opened fire and used tear gas after thousands of workers attacked factories and smashed vehicles at the Chittagong Export Processing Zone. The zone - 135 miles (215 kilometers) southeast of Dhaka - houses about 70 foreign companies that mainly manufacture garments, shoes and bicycles, and employ about 150,000 workers.

On Sunday, a smaller group of workers in Dhaka blocked a busy road and set two vehicles on fire, police said.

Garment workers in Bangladesh are among the lowest-paid in the world, according to the International Trade Union Confederation, a Vienna-based labor rights group.

In the first increase since 2006, the government in July raised the official minimum wage to 3,000 takas ($45) a month from 1,662 takas ($25). The new pay structure took effect in November, but workers say many factories haven't implemented it yet.

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