Friday, December 24, 2010

Time to stop History from repeating himself

Nearly 100 years ago, 146 garment workers, mostly women, burned to death at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City. Workers could not escape because the fire escape doors to this sweatshop were locked. This catastrophe inspired a memorable speech by labor activist Rose Schneiderman.and served as a symbol of the dangers and indignities suffered by workers. According to Wikipedia, the fire also galvanized the International Ladies Garment Workers Union which,
(w)orking with local Tammany Hall officials such as Al Smith and Robert F. Wagner, and progressive reformers such as Frances Perkins, the future Secretary of Labor in the Roosevelt administration, who had witnessed the fire from the street below, pushed for comprehensive safety and workers’ compensation laws. The ILGWU leadership formed bonds with those reformers and politicians that would continue for another forty years, through the New Deal and beyond. As a result of the fire, the American Society of Safety Engineers was founded soon after in New York City, October 14, 1911.
Although unions have been under attack and workers' rights and protections have eroded during the right-wing backlash of the last 30 years, I'd like to think that a catastrophe such as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire would not occur again. I'd like to think that this fire would be replayed only as a historical exhibit, as part of a work of literature such as Beyond the Pale, by Elana Dykewomon or as the occasion for a commemorative event.

But no. Events like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire are still taking place today. We know that US manufacturing jobs have been moved to places where workers have even fewer protections than we do in the United States. The results are predictable. According to this post on, those of us who are busily purchasing fashionable clothing as holiday gifts do not know that
the young, destitute women in Bangladesh who produce those clothes in almost slave-like conditions aren’t feeling the holiday spirit after more than two dozen of them were burned to death last week.

28 workers were killed when a massive blaze broke out in an unsafe, multi-story sweatshop known as the "That's It Sportswear" factory in the Ashulia industrial park just north the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka. With a number of the exits blocked, most of the victims were burned to death, some trampled to death, some killed by suffocation and others jumped from the flames to their death. Several dozen more suffered severe burns.
According to post author Benjamin Joffe-Walt, the factory, owned by the Ha-Meem group, supplies clothing to more than a dozen US clothing companies and retail stores. The December 14 fire was the latest in "a series of deadly incidents in clothing factories in Bangladesh." For instance, a similar incident in February took the lives of 21 workers. Joffee-Walt also reports that:
Last week's fire also came just days after deadly protests over clothing manufacturers' failure to implement a required 80 percent increase in the minimum wage to 3,000 taka a month (about $42). That's right folks, the workers who were burned alive while making $25 T-Shirts were likely being paid some $24 a month, less than $1 a day.
To sign an online petition calling on US clothing companies and retailers to demand better conditions for the workers, follow this link. More suggestions for activism can be found here. One Triangle Shirtwaist Fire was too many. We don't need any more.

No comments: