Police fired rubber bullets and tear gas Sunday in clashes with thousands of Bangladeshi workers protesting over the deaths of 110 people in one of the country's worst factory fires and the sacking of labourers.
Industrial police deputy director Baser Uddin said the sacking of scores of workers at a plant triggered the latest demonstration following the deadly blaze last weekend at Tazreen Fashion in the Ashulia industrial area north of the capital Dhaka.
"We shot rubber bullets and tear gas to disperse them," Uddin said, adding that the protestors blocked a key highway, torching furniture and tyres. Protesters fought back with stones, police said, turning the industrial area, home to hundreds of plants which make clothing for Western retailers, into a battleground. He said Tazreen Fashion workers joined the protest, demanding their wages and justice for the victims of the fire.
"The Tazreen workers were told that they would be paid their November salary on Saturday. The owners did not keep their word. There was no payment even on Sunday," he said.
Scores of factories declared an impromptu holiday on Sunday, which is a workday in Muslim majority Bangladesh, fearing the protests would spread and turn into larger-scale labour unrest, he said. Survivors of the blaze told AFP how workers, most of them women, tried to escape the burning Tazreen Fashion factory, which supplied clothes to a variety of international brands including US giant Walmart and Dutch retailer C&A.
Authorities said the nine-storey factory had permission for three floors, while fire-fighters said all three of the fire exits led to the ground floor, where the blaze started, meaning staff upstairs were effectively trapped.
There have also been accusations that managers told employees to stay at their work stations when the fire broke out and that the activation of a fire alarm was only a routine drill.
Police have arrested three managers and questioned the owner and managing director of the factory, Delwar Hossain. Around 700 garment workers have been killed in dozens of fires since 2006, according to the Clean Clothes Campaign, an Amsterdam-based textile rights group. None of the owners have been prosecuted over previous blazes.
Activists and industry workers have staged a series of demonstrations at Ashulia and Dhaka since the tragedy.