Factory Workers: We Were Locked In As Flames Spread

Body count in garment factory blaze may be much higher than 112, activists say.

Nov. 28, 2012 — -- More survivors of the factory fire in Bangladesh that killed more than 100 garment workers this weekend have told human rights and international labor groups they were actually locked in by security gates as the flames spread.

"The police and the fire department are confirming that the collapsible gates were locked on each floor," said Charles Kernighan, executive director of the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights. "The fire department said they had to come in with bolt cutters to cut the locks."

The toll of the garment factory blaze now stands at 112, but Kernighan and others interviewed by ABC News said they believe the number may actually be much higher. The destruction inside made it difficult to identify bodies, and Kernighan said factory officials have yet to make public a list of the 1,500 workers believed to be working in the nine-story building at 6:30 p.m. Saturday, when the fire broke out in a first floor warehouse.

Kalpona Akter, a labor activist based in the Bangladesh capital of Dhaka, spoke with a number of survivors, who described a scene of horror as workers started to smell smoke, and then the power went out and they were thrown into darkness.

"Then they ran to the stairs and found it was already fire caught in the stairs," she said. "They broke one window in the east side of the factory and … they started to jump."

Akter said many groups of relatives worked together in the factory, and when the lights went out, many began to scream in search of their mothers and sisters and daughters. She said she also heard accounts of managers shutting the gates as alarms sounded to prevent workers from walking off the job, apparently thinking it was a false alarm.

Authorities in Bangladesh announced three arrests, all supervisors from the factory, whom the police accused of negligence in their handling of the incident.

A journalist who attended the police press conference told ABC News the three men were arrested "because they did not perform their duty" and prevented workers from escaping from the factory, instead of helping them get out.

Also Wednesday, there were new reports that clothing found in the burned-out remains included large quantities of sweat shirts with labels for Disney, the parent company of ABC News. Like Wal-Mart and Sears, Disney said today the Tazreen Fashions Limited factory was not supposed to be making its clothes.

"None of our licensees have been permitted to manufacture Disney-branded products in this facility for at least the last 12 months," a Disney statement read.

As with Disney, other retailers continue to question how their products could be found in a factory they did not know they had hired. Li & Fung, a Hong Kong supplier that works with several large brands, confirmed it was producing clothes in the factory for a Sean Combs label, ENYCE. But in a statement to ABC News Wednesday, Li & Fung said it had not brought clothes to the factory for any other client, including Sears, Disney and Wal-Mart.

Asked why it hired a factory that had been cited by at least one auditor for having safety problems, Li & Fung said it was investigating that question.

"As this tragic event is still under official investigation by the authorities, and since Li & Fung will conduct our own investigation, it would be premature to comment on our prior assessment of the factory's compliance," the statement said.

Labor rights groups said the American clothing companies have an obligation to know where their clothing is being manufactured.

"They have the power to make demands on the factory owners, they don't do it though," Kernighan said. "Because they want to keep cutting the prices, and cutting the prices, and cutting the prices."

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