The fire alarm shattered the monotony of the Tazreen Fashions factory. Hundreds of seamstresses looked up from their machines, startled. On the third floor, Shima Akhter Pakhi had been stitching hoods onto fleece jackets. Now she ran to a staircase.
But two managers were blocking the way. Ignore the alarm, they ordered. It was just a test. Back to work. A few women laughed nervously. Ms. Pakhi and other workers returned to their sewing tables. She could stitch a hood to a jacket in about 90 seconds. She arranged the fabric under her machine. Ninety seconds. Again. Ninety more seconds. She sewed six pieces, maybe seven.
Then she looked up.
Smoke was filtering up through the three staircases. Screams rose from below. The two managers had vanished. Power suddenly went out throughout the eight-story building. There was nowhere to escape. The staircases led down into the fire. Iron grilles blocked the windows. A man cowering in a fifth-floor bathroom called his mother to tell her he was about to die.
“We all panicked,” Ms. Pakhi said. “It spread so quickly. And there was no electricity. It was totally dark.”
Tazreen Fashions Ltd. operated at the beginning of the global supply chain that delivers clothes made in Bangladesh to stores in Europe and the United States. By any measure, the factory was not a safe place to work. Fire safety preparations were woefully inadequate. The building itself was under construction — even as sewing work continued inside — and mounds of flammable yarn and fabric were illegally stored on the ground floor near electrical generators.
Yet Tazreen was making clothing destined for some of the world’s top retailers. On the third floor, where firefighters later recovered 69 bodies, Ms. Pakhi was stitching sweater jackets for C&A, a European chain. On the fifth floor, workers were making Faded Glory shorts for Walmart. Ten bodies were recovered there. On the sixth floor, a man named Hashinur Rahman put down his work making True Desire lingerie for Sears and eventually helped save scores of others. Inside one factory office, labor activists found order forms and drawings for a licensee of the United States Marine Corps that makes commercial apparel with the Marines’ logo.
In all, 112 workers were killed in a blaze last month that has exposed a glaring disconnect among global clothing brands, the monitoring system used to protect workers and the factories actually filling the orders. After the fire, Walmart, Sears and other retailers made the same startling admission: They say they did not know that Tazreen Fashions was making their clothing.
But who, then, is ultimately responsible when things go so wrong?