Major retailers' labels found amid fire debris

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Bangladeshi firefighters dousing the last of the fires at the garment factory outside Dhaka on Sunday. The night before, flames raced through the multistory facility, killing 112 people. KHURSHED RINKU / Associated Press

DHAKA, Bangladesh - The garment factory in Bangladesh where 112 people were killed in a fire had been turning out clothes for Walmart, Disney, Sears, and other major retailers - some of whom say they thought they had stopped doing business with the place.

The apparent confusion underscored what some industry experts say is a major obstacle to improving safety in Third World factories: Many major retailers in the United States and Europe rely on such a long and complex chain of manufacturers, vendors, and middlemen to keep their shelves stocked that it is difficult to keep track of where certain products are made.

Amid the blackened tables and melted sewing machines at Tazreen Fashions Ltd., an Associated Press reporter discovered clothes and account books Wednesday that indicated the factory was used by a host of major U.S. and European retailers.

Among the items discovered: children's shorts with Walmart's Faded Glory label, hooded sweaters marked "Disney Pixar," shorts with hip-hop star Sean Combs' ENYC tag, and sweaters from the French company Teddy Smith and the Scottish company Edinburgh Woollen Mill. Sears was also among the companies listed in the account books.

The tragedy at the beginning of the holiday season is putting a spotlight on dangerous workplace conditions, with no clear answers to how consumers should react or who is ultimately responsible.

Walmart said that it received a safety audit that showed the factory was "high-risk" and had decided before the blaze to stop doing business with Tazreen. But it said a supplier had continued to use Tazreen without authorization.

When pressed for an explanation of how a supplier could use a factory without the retailer's approval and whether it happened often, Kevin Gardner, a Walmart spokesman, did not directly address the issue.

Sears said it learned after the blaze that its merchandise was being produced there without its approval through a vendor, which has since been fired. Walt Disney Co., which licenses its characters to clothing makers, said its records indicate that none of its licensees have been permitted to make Disney-brand products at the factory for at least a year.

Combs' Sean Jean Enterprises did not return calls.

Retailers such as Walmart have clauses in place that require suppliers to disclose all factories and subcontractors producing merchandise for sale. But it's hard to crack down on unauthorized subcontracting, said Josh Green, chief executive of New York-based Panjiva, which tracks shipments for factories outside the United States.

"The reality is you have to have round-the-clock monitoring of every aspect of the supplier's operations," he said. "It's just not feasible."