Dec 14, 2010

Globalization, Garment-Making, and the 21st century's Triangle Fire

I heard about this fire in a Bangladesh clothing factory this morning and immediately thought of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire, whose 100th anniversary is coming up in March. In Bangladesh earlier today, at least 25 workers died and more than a 100 were injured in a fire at the Garib & Garib Sweater Factory. The factory reportedly makes clothes for the Gap, H&M, Walmart, and other mass-market retailers.

On March 25, 1911, 146 workers died when a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company garment factory in Washington Square in New York City. When the fire began, the workers found themselves trapped because the factory's owners had locked the exits to keep their workers from taking breaks. The fire department's equipment couldn't reach as high as the fire; many workers died by jumping out of the burning building to escape. The workers were mostly young immigrant women from Eastern Europe, many of them Jewish. Triangle company workers had been active in local unions and helped lead a major strike, the "Uprising of the 20,000," in 1909. After the fire, survivors and their union, the International Ladies Garment Workers' Union, pressed for improvements in safety and working conditions and helped pass some important laws protecting factory workers.

Now, of course, most of our clothes are made outside the U.S., in factories with conditions often similar to those at the Triangle factory 100 years ago. Workers at the Bangladesh factory reported that some of the exits were blocked when the fire broke out, and many jumped out of broken windows to escape the flames. The Guardian reports that "garment workers in Bangladesh are among the lowest-paid in the world." Bangladesh's 4,000 factories export about $10 billion worth of clothes every year.

The production of clothes and other mass-market goods in low-wage countries around the world is a fact of life that isn't going away. As I write this I'm wearing Gap jeans, a J. Crew sweater, and Nike socks - any of which could have come from the Garib & Garib factory. I guess my point is that now that we've outsourced our clothing production, we've also outsourced the dangerous working conditions that necessitated the very labor laws that made that production too expensive to keep in the U.S. (although of course that's a significant over-simplification of the many reasons why wages and labor costs are higher here than in places like Bangladesh). The Garib & Garib factory may be separated from the Triangle factory by 100 years and 8,000 miles, but the workers are still, more often than not, the same: young migrant workers with too few options and too little power to control their working conditions.

[For an interesting online exhibit about the Triangle fire, check this out. Theresa Malkiel's book The Diary of a Shirtwaist Striker is also a great (and quick) read.]

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