The officials of Tazreen Fashions Ltd in Ashulia, where more than 100 workers died in a fire on Saturday night, played music to suppress the sound of the fire alarm, a survivor alleged at a discussion yesterday.
Maria Akhtar, who miraculously survived the inferno, said the fire alarm rang at 6:50pm and the workers on the sixth floor ran to the staircases for exit.
But the production manager on duty asked them to go back to work, saying there was no danger. They later managed a makeshift bamboo bridge to escape to a nearby building with life risk, she said.
The discussion on how to stop deaths in fire at garment factories was organsied by the Prothom Alo at its office in the city.
Maria said Delwar Hossain, the owner, visited the factory 15 minutes before the raging fire started to engulf the eight-storey factory building.
Normally, workers are asked to remain disciplined and well-clad prior to the owner's visit but that day he came silently, Maria said.
Syed Ashraful Zaman Kallol, another survivor who worked on the fifth floor, said production managers Dulal and Ranju and factory manager Razzaq all obstructed the workers' escape immediately after the alarm rang.
"There would have not been such phenomenal losses of lives had they allowed us to leave the factory," said Kallol, who later escaped, breaking open a fourth-floor window, to the nearby building.
Mahabub Alam, another survivor, said, "The factory officials treat us as prisoners denying free movement."
Shirin Akhtar, founding president of Karmojibi Nari, an organisation to ensure women workers' rights, said the owner must be arrested immediately for the crime his employees have committed.
Unless he is brought to book, it will be difficult to calm down the workers' unrest, said Nazma Akhtar, president of Sammilita Garments Sramik Federation, a platform of garment workers.
Both the global retailers of readymade garments and the local entrepreneurs fatten their pockets on cheap labour, leaving the workers unsafe, she said.
Major Muhammad Mahboob, director of Fire Service and Civil Defense (operations and maintenance), said garment materials staked at the ground landing of staircases were extremely flammable and created high heat and dense smock that trapped and chocked the workers to death.
A section of garment manufacturers treat the workers as forced labourers and violate labour law and relevant safety rules, said Mikail Shipar, secretary-in-charge to the labour and employment ministry.
The factory inspection department of the ministry, responsible for ensuring safe working environment at factories, currently has a 184-member manpower for the entire country though law requires 314 positions.
For the entire Dhaka division, there are only four inspectors, said the secretary, adding that repeated attempts to enhance manpower has not yielded any result yet.
Md Shafiul Islam Mohiuddin, president of Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, among others, spoke at the discussion moderated by Prothom Alo Joint Editor Abdul Quayum.