Several thousand Bangladeshi garment workers were fired after safety inspectors found their factory unsafe, officials said Monday.
The factory was the first to close following the mass inspections organized by dozens of Western retailers such as H&M and Benetton who signed a new safety accord following a series of deadly accidents, such as the collapse of the 8-story Rana Plaza building last year that killed 1,135 workers and a fire at the Tazreen Fashion factory in 2012 that killed more than 100 people.
The team of experts ordered the evacuation of six floors of two adjoining buildings that house two clothing firms, including Softex Sweater, a Bangladeshi supplier to French retailer Auchan. Following the order, Softex shut down immediately, laying off all 3,500 workers, saying "it was risky to continue operations."
"I know what has happened to the workers is unfair. But the inspectors told me that the building has serious structural problems and asked us to evacuate the floors," Softex chief executive officer Rezwan Seilm told Agence France-Presse.
Seilm said he was "desperately trying" to pay three months' wages to the workers from the factory in Mirpur in the northern suburb of Dhaka.
Bangladesh's trade group representing garment factories said retailers must shoulder some of the costs. As part of the safety accord, the retailers agreed to bankroll the inspections and loan the money for upgrades.
"We're closing down plants as part of their (retailers') suggestions. So they must pay the affected factories to compensate their workers," said Shahidullah Azim, vice-president of Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association.
Bangladesh is the world's second biggest clothing manufacturer and the $22 billion sector is the mainstay of the impoverished South Asian nation's economy.
The head of the inspection team, Rob Wayss, said the factory has not been ordered to close down, but it has been asked to strengthen the building's structural columns.
Wayss, who has been appointed by the retailers and global unions to look after factory inspections, said factories located on other floors of the twin-building containing 15 floors in total can continue operations.
"We've told the factories that they can operate in the remaining floors," Wayss told AFP. "We've also asked them to strengthen columns of the buildings."
Bangladesh raised wages for millions of garment workers starting last December and amended its labor law last July to boost worker rights, including the freedom to form trade unions, following international pressure on the world's second largest clothing exporter.
However, industry leaders said all factory owners had not implemented the minimum wage of $68 per month — up from $38 — while in February, Human Rights Watch said garment factory workers who try to form trade unions are being intimidated and threatened with murder.
Al Jazeera and wire services