The fire has drawn attention to a problem that labor groups, retailers and governments have known for years: Bangladesh's fast-growing garment industry, second only to China's in exports, is rife with dangerous workplaces. More than 300 workers there have died in fires since 2006.
The country annually earns about $20 billion from exports of garment products, mainly to the U.S. and Europe.
Labor Minister Rajiuddin Ahmed Raju said Thursday that factories without emergency exits or with only one such exit will be forced to close until they upgrade their safety infrastructure.
The factory's owner, Delwar Hossain, said he was never informed the facility was required to have an emergency exit.
"It was my fault. But nobody told me that there was no emergency exit, which could be made accessible from outside," Hossain was quoted Thursday as telling The Daily Star newspaper. "Nobody even advised me to install one like that, apart from the existing ones."
Nazma Akhter, president of the Bangladesh Combined Garment Workers Federation trade union, called for the arrest of the factory's owners and management to send a message to the industry as a whole.
Companies that do business with local factories need to feel some pressure, according to the Center for Safety and Health Sustainability and the American Society of Safety Engineers, two groups that are doing research on worker safety.
"It's not enough to condemn local factory owners for these conditions and to expect long term change," said Thomas Cecich, a vice president of the sustainability group, in a statement Thursday. "The corporations that source supply chain products, as well as their stakeholders, have tremendous power to influence the conditions in which supply chain workers operate."
Associated Press writer Julhas Alam in Dhaka, Bangladesh, contributed to this report.