DHAKA, Bangladesh (AP) — A devastating blaze raced through a multistory garment factory near Bangladesh's capital on Tuesday, killing as many as 25 people and injuring more than 100, witnesses and news reports said.
Fire official Golam Mostafa said the fire started in a 10-story factory owned by local business giant Hameem Group in the Ashulia industrial zone, just outside Dhaka. It was not immediately clear what caused the blaze.
Local journalist Rafiqul Islam told The Associated Press by phone from the scene he saw at least 25 bodies being loaded onto ambulances.
Diganta television reported at least 20 people died and more than 100 were injured. ATN News said rescuers recovered at least 11 bodies.
Monir Hossain, another journalist on the scene, said the blaze broke out on the two upper floors during lunch break. A gate on a stairwell was locked, trapping people inside, he quoted witnesses as saying.
Islam said some 13,000 people work at the factory each day, though most were outside buying lunch when the fire started. Officials predicted the death toll would rise, he said.
Mostafa said army soldiers joined the rescue operation.
Bangladesh has about 4,000 garment factories that export more than $10 billion worth of products a year, mainly to the United States and Europe. Customers include Wal-Mart, Tesco, H&M, Zara, Carrefour, Gap, Metro, JCPenney, Marks & Spencer, Kohl's, Levi Strauss and Tommy Hilfiger.
Recent protests by low-paid garment workers have gripped the country. Workers demanding the implementation of a new minimum wage clashed with police at an industrial zone in southeastern Bangladesh on Sunday, leaving up to three people dead and 100 hurt.
Authorities opened fire and used tear gas after thousands of workers attacked factories and smashed vehicles at the Chittagong Export Processing Zone. The zone — 135 miles (215 kilometers) southeast of Dhaka — houses about 70 foreign companies that mainly manufacture garments, shoes and bicycles, and employ about 150,000 workers.
Smaller protests have taken place around Dhaka demanding the new wage structure. On Sunday, workers in the capital blocked a busy road and set two vehicles on fire, police said.
Garment workers in Bangladesh are among the lowest-paid in the world, according to the International Trade Union Confederation, a Vienna-based labor rights group.
In the first increase since 2006, the government in July raised the official minimum wage to 3,000 takas ($45) a month from 1,662 takas ($25). The new pay structure took effect in November, but workers say many factories haven't implemented it yet.