Bangladesh police charged the two owners of the Tazreen Fashions factory and 11 employees with culpable homicide Sunday over the nation's deadliest-ever garment factory fire, which killed 112 workers last year.
It was the first time Bangladeshi authorities had sought to prosecute factory owners. A series of recent deadly disasters — including the fire on Nov. 24, 2012, and a factory collapse in April that killed more than 1,100 workers — exposed how harsh and unsafe conditions can be for many of the country's 4 million workers providing clothing to major Western retailers.
Public Prosecutor Anwarul Kabir Babul said the 13 people charged Sunday could face life in prison if convicted of failing to ensure safety at the sprawling Tazreen Fashions Ltd. factory, located outside Dhaka, the capital.
But a union leader reacted angrily to the charges, saying they were too lenient, and predicted that the cases would drag on for years.
"The owners were directly responsible for the murder of more than 100 workers. Yet they are not charged with murder," Babul Akter, head of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation, told news agency Agence France-Presse.
"The charges they've been accused of are bailable and will be hard to prove. The case will drag on for years in lower and higher courts and will eventually lead to lighter sentences or no conviction at all."
The factory, which produced clothing for global brands including Walmart, had no emergency fire exits, while its location in a narrow alley meant firefighters were unable to reach the flames, Babul said.
Those charged include owners Delwar Hossain and his wife, Mahmuda Akter, as well as 11 factory managers, security guards and engineers, Babul said. A court will decide on Dec. 31 whether to accept the charges and allow a trial to proceed.
"The managers and security guards misguided the workers by saying that it was nothing but a part of a regular fire drill when the blaze broke out," Babul said. "So the workers went back to work after the fire alarm went off, but they got trapped as the mangers locked the gates."
Victims of the factory 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.
Bangladesh is the world's second-largest garment manufacturer after China and earns more than $20 billion a year from exports, mainly to the United States and Europe.
Al Jazeera and wire services