After a fire killed 112, the new warrants issued could help to restore faith in the Bangladeshi court system

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Audio Transcript:

Carol Hills: I'm Carol Hills, in for Marco Werman, and this is The World. The fireworks displays have already gone off in much of the world. In a few minutes we'll take a look at some of the festivities welcoming in 2014, but we begin with a much more somber story. An update, actually. A Bangladeshi court today issued arrest warrants for the two owners, along with four employees, of the Tazreen garment factory. A fire there in November 2012 killed 112 workers.
The Wall Street Journal's Syed Zain Al-Mahmood is in Dhaka, and he says this is the first time Bangladesh has gone after factory owners for safety violations.

Syed Zain Al-Mahmood: They've been charged on two counts. They've been charged with culpable homicide, not amounting to murder, and causing death by negligence.

Hills: And what kind of negligence? What's being cited?

Al-Mahmood: The police, in their report, said that the factory didn't have proper fire exits, that there was flammable yarn stored on the ground floor, which is a clear violation of the labor law. That managers forced workers to sit down after the fire alarm had sounded. So all of those things are being cited to press the case that the owners were negligent in how they handled this.

Hills: So when the fire started, they told the workers to sit down as opposed to exit the building?

Al-Mahmood: That's right, that's right. When I reported on this, worker after worker told me that they were sewing their clothes when the fire alarms sounded, and they wanted to exit the building, but they were told by managers to sit down and carry on working. And some workers said that the floor managers had said this was a fire drill and not a real fire. It was only after the smoke had filled the factory floors that people realized this was an actual fire and tried to get it.

Hills: I know arrest warrants were also issued for four employees of the Tazreen factory. What are they being charged with?

Al-Mahmood: Those four employees are factory managers. The production manager, floor manager, and so on. So they're also being charged with the same counts of culpable homicide and causing death by negligence, because of their part in failing to ensure that the workers were able to evacuate the building once the fire alarm sounded.

Hills: Now, this is the first time that Bangladeshi authorities have sought to prosecute factory owners. What does this mean for other garment factories in Bangladesh, given that it's such a huge part of Bangladesh's economy?

Al-Mahmood: I think it's safe to say that it does send a signal that the government is serious about persecuting people responsible for industrial accidents in this country, which has not been the case in the past. Labor activists have welcomed this and they are saying that a culture of impunity existed here, and if the factory management of Tazreen are indeed held accountable, that it will send a strong message that times are about to change.

Hills: What about just improving factory safety? Are we likely to see any improvements?

Al-Mahmood: Well, the government has promised that it's doing all it can to improve factory safety. Because after the Tazreen fire and the Rana Plaza factory complex collapsed, that happened in April, a very harsh light has been shown on this industry. So the government has, for example, amended the labor law, and they're prosecuting, in this case, the Tazreen owners. In the Rana Plaza case, 21 people are in custody. So there is an attempt to fix things. It's all about staying the course and making sure that things do change in the long run.

Hills: Now, we should add that the six of these people who are being charged are at large. The two owners and four of the employees. If they don't appear to accept being arrested, will the case go on in absentia?

Al-Mahmood: Absolutely. If they're not arrested by the police and they don't turn themselves in, the case will proceed. These people do have lawyers who have played their part in court, so even if they are not physically present, they'll definitely be represented and they will have their day in court.

Hills: Syed Zain Al-Mahmood is a south Asian reporter with the Wall Street Journal. We've been speaking to him from Dhaka, Bangladesh. Thanks, Syed.

Al-Mahmood: Thank you for having me on the show.