DHAKA - A Bangladesh court Tuesday ordered the arrest of owners of a garment factory where 111 workers were killed last year in the country's worst such fire, after police laid charges.
The court in Dhaka issued the warrants for Delwar Hossain and his wife Mahmuda Akter and four others over the blaze that gutted the Tazreen factory where workers stitched clothes for Western retailers including Walmart.
Senior judicial magistrate Wasim Sheikh gave the order after declaring all six "fugitives" for failing to appear in court over charges laid by police earlier this month against 13 people over the tragedy, a prosecutor said.
The magistrate formally accepted the charges against the 13 including the owners, factory managers and security guards, who all face a maximum sentence of life in prison if convicted.
"Dhaka's senior judicial magistrate Wasim Sheikh issued the warrants of arrest against the two fugitive owners ... and four other company officials for the Tazreen factory fire," prosecutor Anwarul Kabir told AFP.
"The owners and 11 others have been charged with arson, culpable homicide not amounting to murder and death by negligence," Kabir said. Seven of those charged were in court or in custody.
The fire, the country's deadliest at a garment factory, highlighted appalling safety problems in the sector, a mainstay of the economy, where about four million workers toil for some of the lowest sector wages in the world.
The country suffered an even greater tragedy just months later in April when the Rana Plaza garment factory complex collapsed in Dhaka's outskirts, killing 1,135 people in one of the world's worst industrial disasters.
The arrest order signals a toughening stand by local authorities against influential garment manufacturers, who openly flout safety rules for Bangladesh's 4,500 garment factories, where deadly accidents are common.
Police last week said it was possibly the first time an owner has been charged over a fire in the sector, which accounts for up to 80 per cent of the impoverished country's exports.
Delwar Hossain, who since the tragedy has been barred from leaving the country, has been accused of breaching construction rules including building unsafe and narrow staircases in the nine-storey building.
Hossain, who is the managing director of the factory and his wife the chairperson, could not be contacted for comment despite several calls to his mobile phone numbers.
Workers forced to jump from windows
Victims of the November 2012 fire, mostly women who were paid as little as $37 a month, found themselves overcome by smoke or were forced to jump from windows on upper floors, police have said.
Managers and security guards were charged over their insistence workers return to their duties even though smoke was billowing from the ground floor where the fire started, according to a police investigation report.
The factory, in the Ashulia industrial district, supplied clothes to a variety of international brands including US giant Walmart, Dutch retailer C&A and ENYCE, a label owned by US rapper Sean "Diddy" Combs.
Some of the retailers have refused to compensate some 200 workers injured in the fire and families of workers killed, arguing that their orders to suppliers for garments were illegally diverted to the Tazreen factory.
Despite the charges and the arrest warrants, unions said it was unlikely the owners would face tough punishment, predicting that the case would drag on for years.
The industry is the world's second largest after China and factory owners themselves - many of whom are also lawmakers and owners of banks and insurers - wield great influence in Bangladesh.
Bangladesh pledged to clean up the industry after the Rana Plaza disaster and more than 100 top Western retailers have signed up to new safety agreements to allow greater scrutiny of their operations.
The government last month raised minimum wages for workers by 76 per cent and launched inspections of factories in the wake of mounting criticism that authorities were failing to improve the sector.
The new minimum wage of US$68 (S$86) a month still makes Bangladesh one of the lowest paid garment sectors in the world, according to activists.