Rights activists have blamed both national and international companies for the deaths of 110 workers in a Bangladeshi garment factory which caught fire on the weekend.
At least 110 people were killed in Bangladesh when fire swept through the nine-storey Tazreen Fashion plant 30 kilometers north of the capital Dhaka on Saturday night. The workers, mostly women, got trapped in the building and tried to jump from upper floors to save their lives. The fire was believed to have been caused by an electrical short circuit.
Tuba Group - owner of the Tazreen plant - says on its website that its factories make clothes for global retail giants including Walmart, Carrefour, IKEA and C&A. The Group employs around 7,000 workers and claims that it is accredited with the US-based WRAP (Worldwide Responsible Accredited Production) - which certifies workplace safety standards. The WRAP denies that it had certified the Tazreen factory.
On Monday, thousands of Bangladeshi garment workers held mass protests against the incident and demand an end to "death-trap" working conditions. According to Bangladeshi officials, more than 500 factories which make clothes for global retailers remained closed on Monday.
Bangladesh is the world's second-largest clothes exporter and its garment industry employs nearly 40 percent of its industrial force. Eighty percent of the Bangladeshi garment workers are women, who work long hours in factories in very harsh conditions. Bangladeshi trade union activists say that many of these factories fail to meet basic standards of safety.
Rights organizations have repeatedly criticized Western retailers for not paying attention to the violation of international standards of workplace safety down the supply chain in underdeveloped and developing countries.
"This is another glaring indictment of the failure of the so-called private sector corporate social responsibility model," Phil Robertson, Asia deputy director of Human Rights Watch, told AFP. "Many factory owners either deceive or buy their way to so-called safety compliance which is designed to satisfy overseas buyers keen to get garments at low prices."
Sultana Kamal, president of the Human Rights Forum in Dhaka, said that the factory blaze incident was "criminal" and that the government should form a judicial commission to investigate the case.
"Both the factory owners and the government are responsible for this and they cannot just call it an accident. The culprits should be punished," Kamal told DW.
In September, 289 people died in a similar incident in the Pakistani port city of Karachi. There have been other smaller fire accidents in Pakistan and other South Asian countries in the past, which experts say were caused by negligence of the owners.
The Karachi factory mostly produced items for the German clothing store, KiK. The fire incident caused a huge uproar in Germany and the company had to establish an emergency fund to support the families of the victims.
"Countries like Bangladesh and Pakistan face tough competition from other markets that provide cheap labor to international companies. They compromise on safety measures to reduce their services cost. It works well for international retailers as they are there to make a profit," Sartaj Khan, a trade union activist in Karachi, told DW.
"But at the end of the day, it is the responsibility of the local governments to make sure that the labor laws are properly implemented in these factories."
Farooq Tariq of the Awami Workers Party told DW from Lahore that most factory owners in Pakistan did not follow labor laws.
"According to our survey, there are more than 300 factories operating in the residential areas of Lahore, yet none of them obey labor laws and conventions," Tariq claimed. "They do not allow labor inspection in their factories, which, in my opinion, is essential to safeguard the safety and rights of the workers. Sadly, the government protects the factory owners."
Not all international retailers agree.
Stefan Wengler of the Foreign Trade Association of German Retail Trade praised the efforts of global retailers to push the franchises in developing countries to follow international regulations regarding security and pay. He told DW that they had launched a Business Social Compliance Initiative (BSCI) nine years ago to monitor the companies.
"At the beginning, in the first year, only seven out of 100 companies passed the test," he said, adding that in the most recent check, one third of the companies managed to fulfill the standards. He said companies which didn't pass acted quickly to fix whatever was wrong.
"The BSCI has very strict standards. The problem is only that when you go into a supplier to check, all might be fine but when you leave, it all goes back to how it was before," Wengler said.
But Sabine Ferenschild of Südwind, an organization fighting for global social and economic justice, told DW that the main responsibility to improve the situation rested with international companies.
"Most of the products that are being sold in Germany are no longer produced here but rather in countries where the workers' rights only exist on paper but not in reality," she said, adding that it was the German companies who profited from that.
"What's missing is any kind of long-term perspective," she said. "This is what the catastrophes so far have shown. There have been fires in factories before with several workers getting killed."
Khan said the issue should be seen in relation to the global financial crisis. "Local and international companies are not making as much profit as they did in the past; therefore we see an increase in the exploitation of workers. Now, the workers have to work for longer hours for less money," Khan said, adding that such incidents would continue to happen if the workers didn't unite against the factory owners and pressure their governments to ensure better pay and security at work.