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 like Target, Wal-Mart 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. Minneapolis-based Target Corp. 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 e-mail.

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

"This is complicated, there are multiple steps in a supply chain, there could be a supplier that may be based here in the United States and may be buying from factories, and sometimes there are subcontract factories," said Mike Duke, the CEO of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., during a Dec. 11 meeting with the Council on Foreign Relations.

A recent report by consulting firm McKinsey suggests companies that want to know which factories are making their clothes can find out if they are diligent. But suppliers have been known to conceal subcontractors even from the middlemen who broker the deals, and not just in the garment industry, said Li Zhao, an owner at China Iowa Group, an import-export firm in Des Moines.

"Sometimes they will secretly outsource their orders to what they call a partnering factory," she said. "Right when they're about to finish, they ship it back to the original factory for final inspection, so unless there is someone on the ground constantly monitoring production, no one really knows that there's another factory involved."

Busy season

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."

Garment workers in Bangladesh on average make only 24 cents per hour, the Associated Press reported. But for the country's 161 million people, packed into a landmass two-thirds the size of Minnesota, the work is attractive. Factory managers have no problem replacing people, Sinha said.

"Bodies are substitutable," he said.

The Tazreen blaze broke out two days after Black Friday in the United States. The factory was still under construction and not up to code, the Associated Press reported. The building, which was several stories taller than its permit allowed, had no fire escapes, and employees in upper floors were ordered to keep working until smoke had risen through the stairwells, the New York Times reported.

After it came to light that the factory was working on goods emblazoned with the U.S. Marine Corps logo, several U.S. senators including Minnesota's Al Franken signed a letter asking President Obama to ensure federal work doesn't go to companies like Tazreen's owner, the Tuba Group.

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

Also, Li and Fung Ltd., a longtime supplier for Target and Wal-Mart 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.

Seeking change

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. Phillips-Van Heusen sells the Calvin Klein and Tommy Hilfiger brands.

Target responded Friday by describing its standards and efforts to improve fire safety. But the company did not signal it would sign the agreement proposed by labor groups.

Target, like most of its competitors, publishes neither its fire audit reports nor a list of vendors in Bangladesh.

"We use our own internal unannounced audit process and our own auditor," Deede said.

Adam Belz • 612-673-4405 Twitter: @adambelz