Adam Belz
Minneapolis Star Tribune

The gruesome fire that killed 112 garment workers in Bangladesh last month underscored a stubborn problem that has dogged retailers for years.

Bangladesh’s garment industry makes clothes cheap for companies such as Target, Walmart and the Gap, but the work is too often deadly.

An estimated 600 garment workers in the country have died in fires since 2005, the International Labor Rights Forum says. The persistent safety lapses have fixed a spotlight on U.S. retailers, prompting criticism from labor groups that say companies don’t do enough to protect the people who make the clothes they sell.

“Workers’ lives are on the line while they’re making clothing for export to the U.S. market,” said Liana Foxvog, spokeswoman for the labor rights group.

Stores that sell clothes in the United States are on the end of a supply chain that starts with cheap labor at cheap factories in South Asia. Target is no exception.

The Nov. 25 fire happened at a factory called Tazreen Fashions, whose parent company was a Target supplier until 2008. Tragedy struck the Minneapolis company’s supply chain directly two years ago when a December 2010 fire killed 29 at a factory that supplied clothes to Target, J.C. Penney, Kohl’s and Abercrombie & Fitch.

The company won’t say why its partnership with Tazreen’s owners ended, but Target has in recent years cracked down on safety violations by suppliers, spokeswoman Jessica Deede said in an email.

The company’s inspectors get extra time in Bangladesh to conduct fire audits and ensure factories use adequate safety procedures and training. The company has also stopped doing business with nearly 50 percent of its Bangladeshi suppliers, consolidating its factory base to more easily monitor it, Deede said.

“We can confirm that we have no known production with the Tazreen factory,” Deede said.

Certainty is difficult. Middlemen broker clothing deals in South Asia, and work can be subcontracted multiple times. Buyers can be several degrees removed from suppliers.

Like Target, Walmart has said it ended its relationship with Tazreen before the fire. Yet the factory was full of jean shorts destined for Walmart’s shelves, thanks to subcontracts the company said it didn’t know about.

When Bangladesh’s roughly 5,000 garment factories ramp up production, share work and hire temporary employees, supply chain confusion can be exacerbated, said Kingshuk Sinha, who teaches corporate responsibility at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Management.

“The general dynamic is there’s madness,” Sinha said. “People forget the hours, the conditions. You’re chasing orders.”

No one has proved that Tazreen workers were sewing clothes for Target at the time of the fire, but Dickies jeans and C&A brand clothing, which Target sells, were recovered from the site, Foxvog said. The owner of the Tazreen factory, Delowar Hussein, did not respond to emails from the Star Tribune.

Also, Li and Fung Ltd., a longtime supplier for Target and Walmart based in Hong Kong, is a Tazreen customer. The Hong Kong firm, one of the gatekeepers to Asia’s garment industry, has pledged to help compensate the families of victims of the fire.

In a letter to Target earlier this month, the International Labor Rights Forum and four other groups asked Target to publish its audit reports related to Tazreen Fashions, publicly disclose its full supplier list, submit to independent fire inspections and pay for repairs at supplier factories. The legally binding Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement, which was developed by unions and labor rights organizations, also stipulates that retailers promote unions at Bangladeshi factories.

Two companies — American firm Phillips-Van Heusen and a German chain called Tchibo — have agreed to participate.