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Factory owner says unaware of need for fire exits

Julhas Alam, Associated Press

Boxes of garments lay near equipment charred in the fire that killed 112 workers Saturday at the Tazreen Fashions Ltd. factory,on the outskirts of Dhaha, Bangladesh, Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012. Garments and documents left behind in the factory show it was used by a host of major American and European retailers, though at least one of them — Wal-Mart — had been aware of safety problems. Wal-Mart blames a supplier for using Tazreen Fashions without its knowledge. (AP Photo/Ashraful Alam Tito)

DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) -- The owner of a Bangladesh clothing factory where a fire killed 112 people says he was never informed the facility was required to have an emergency exit, a sign of how far removed the leaders of the nation's garment industry are from issues of worker safety.

"It was my fault. But nobody told me that there was no emergency exit, which could be made accessible from outside," factory owner Delwar Hossain was quoted Thursday as telling The Daily Star newspaper. "Nobody even advised me to install one like that, apart from the existing ones."

"I could have done it. But nobody ever suggested that I do it," said Hossain, who could not be reached for comment by The Associated Press on Thursday.

Activists in the South Asian country hope the tragedy will invigorate their lengthy — but fruitless — efforts to upgrade safety standards and force stronger government oversight of the powerful industry.

The Tazreen Fashions Ltd. factory in a Dhaka suburb was making clothes for Wal-Mart, Sears, Disney and other major global retailers. When a fire broke out over the weekend, many of the 1,400 workers were trapped inside the eight-story building because exit doors were locked. A fire official said the death toll would have been much lower if the factory had had an emergency exit.

An AP reporter who visited the damaged factory Wednesday found three stairways but no special fire exits.

Hossain, a former accounts manager at another garment factory, set up his own clothing business, Tuba Textiles Mills Ltd. in 2004. The Tazreen factory was one of a dozen owned by his company.

Iqbal Habib, an architect and an activist, said fire exits were mandatory in such factories. He blamed government agencies, and the local industry trade group, for not ensuring the building was up to the proper standards.

"This is not acceptable. This is a serious issue. We must deal with such things seriously," he said.

Nazma Akhter, president of the Bangladesh Combined Garment Workers Federation trade union, called for the arrest of the factory's owners and management to send a message to the industry as a whole.

"There should be a criminal case against them. It could stop the recurrence of such incidents," he said.

Labor Minister Rajiuddin Ahmed Raju said that factories without emergency exits — or with only one such exit — will be forced to close until they upgrade their safety infrastructure. It was not clear when and how that directive will be enforced.