Smart Export Garments Ltd, where seven workers died in a blaze on Saturday, used to produce clothing items at an unlicensed factory for European brands under sub-contract.
A visit to the factory in the capital's Mohammadpur revealed that there was neither any fire-fighting equipment nor any exit signs on the walls at the factory.
The owners of Smart Export Garments could not be contacted as they went into hiding soon after the blaze. They set up the factory on the second floor of a two-storey building owned by Nasima Khanam.
Nasima admitted that she did not have any approval from Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakkha (Rajuk) for constructing the building.
She, however, claimed that it was not necessary to take Rajuk's approval since the site is located outside Mohammadpur flood protection dam.
Nasima told The Daily Star over the phone that when the factory owners contacted her for renting a floor of the building, they told her that they were not big garment manufacturers.
They also told her that they would bring light machines to the factory for sewing clothes.
"The factory owners told us that they would sew clothes for major garment factories and they don't have any network abroad," she said.
Khandoker Shamsuzzoha, assistant director of fire service department, told The Daily Star that Smart Export Garments does not have any fire licence and the factory had never applied for it.
The department's Deputy Assistant Director Mamun Mahmud, also member of a probe committee on the fire incident, said, "If someone wants to set up a garment factory, he has to follow a legal process. None can launch an apparel factory without a fire licence."
Some official documents found at the burnt factory confirmed that it had produced garments for European brands under subcontract with local exporters.
The Daily Star found tags of some brands such as SOL's, Bershka, Lefties, Scott & Fox and Hawaiian Authentics strewn among burnt clothing items.
Of the brands, Bershka and Lefties belong to Spanish retail giant Inditex.
When asked, an Inditex official in Dhaka said they didn't know that their clothing items are made in such non-compliant factories.
Inditex's owner Amancio Ortega is the third richest person in the world having wealth worth $59.8 billion at the end of last year, according to media reports.
“The main factories that got purchase orders gave the orders to Smart Export Garments under subcontract without informing Lefties,” said the Inditex official asking not to be named.
“We are now sifting through the purchase order documents to find out who were given the work orders and how Smart Export Garments Ltd got the orders under sub-contract. We have no direct dealings with Smart Export Garments.
“The actual receivers of purchase orders gave the work orders to Smart Export Garment sneakily without informing the buyer,” the official added.
It was evident from the burnt clothes that the factory, which spread over a 10,000 square-feet floor, was producing long-sleeved off-white cotton jackets for Lefties, as tags of this brand were found attached to the jackets.
The factory was also producing clothes for some other European brands such as Bershka, Scott & Fox, Pasadena Rider, SOL's, G blog, Hawaiian Authentics and max.
A sub-contract deed signed between Smart Export Garments and Mahi Fashion on November 26, 2012 was also found in the factory.
The agreement shows that Smart Export Garments gave an offer to Mahi Fashion for sewing, finishing and packing 3,000 pieces of cargo shorts.
Mahi Fashion accepted the offer based on an 11-point condition stipulated in the deed. The date of the products' shipment was December 4 last year.
Other documents also confirmed that Smart Export Garments had signed similar agreements with some other companies, including Omas Packaging Ltd, Naz Jeans Processions and MAC-TEX.
Abdul Kader, who looks after the building and also runs a bakery on the ground floor, said the two-storey building has a foundation for five floors.
He said the building's construction began in 2011, and its owner entered into an agreement with Smart Export Garments towards the end of the same year.
The garment factory went into production on the 1st floor in January last year while the bakery on the ground floor was launched later.
He said the apparel factory had electricity connection but it did not have any gas connection or water supply from Wasa. It used pumps to extract groundwater.
Kader said what caused the fire still remained unknown but he believed that external sources like a dropped cigarette might have sparked the fire.
"Someone might have started the fire because it was originated from a corner where there was no electric device that could cause short-circuit," he said.
However, Home Minister Muhiuddin Khan Alamgir yesterday told reporters at his secretariat office that a primary investigation found that Saturday's factory fire was caused by an electrical short-circuit.
Kader said he had met an inspector of Rajuk before the construction of the two-storey building. The Rajuk official had told him that the building did not require an approval of Rajuk as the area was outside its jurisdiction.
Kader, however, could not name the inspector.
Asked if the building's owner had checked whether Smart Export Garments Ltd had all the legal papers required before he rented out the first floor, Kader said, "We considered them [factory owners] as mere tenants."
Smart Export Garments is not a member of Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) or Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA).
The factory looked like a very informal trade venture where no safety measure had been taken, putting at risk the lives of some 350 employees.
It seemed to have employed labourers, ignoring the mandatory 18-year-age requirement. Many minor boys and girls had been appointed at the factory, said some workers and neighbours.
Moyna Akter, a 20-year-old girl, worked for only two months after the company began its operation in the building in January last year. Her younger sister Kohinur Akter continued her job as a helper until she died in Saturday's deadly fire.
The great loss has a serious impact on Moyna who said, "I will never work for a garment factory."
She also said one of the factory's owners was Sharif whose wife had worked as a supervisor there.
Smart Export Garments used to manufacture men's shorts and jackets with flammable foams. The fire was originated from the store room near the toilet on the factory floor, survivors said. All offices, store rooms, sample rooms and toilets were on the same floor.
During the fire, more than 300 workers were inside the factory, said some workers.
BGMEA President Shafiul Islam Mohiuddin said the trade body could not avoid its responsibility though the factory was not its member.
"We are closely monitoring the matter. We are trying to reach the owners of the factory."
Subcontract has become a reality of the garment industry now. Foreign buyers are squeezing the prices and so to get the production cost reduced, garment owners subcontract their orders, the BGMEA chief said. If the buyers increase even 20 cents per piece of garment items, the whole issue of compliance would turn overnight, he added.
Kalpana Akter, executive director of Bangladesh Centre for Workers Solidarity, however, said, "Frequent fires [at garment factories] are taking place for weak monitoring of the government and BGMEA. BGMEA cannot avoid its responsibility though the factory is not its member."