On March 25, 1911, 129 women and 17 men died in a fire in New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory. The garment factory was housed on the top three floors of a 10-storey building with no proper fire escapes.
The employees, almost all of them Italian and Jewish immigrants, had no way out. The doors had been locked to prevent pilfering and unauthorized breaks. Victims as young as 14 jumped 10 storeys to their deaths, or were immolated in the blaze. The owners of the factory were charged with manslaughter, but acquitted. A civil court found fault and awarded victims’ families damages of $75 per body. When all was said and done, the owners found they had made a tidy profit on the insurance.
In the ensuing weeks, pressure on politicians from the Women’s Trade Union League and other labour organizations, backed by public outrage, led to a state enquiry into the fire, and the result was the start of modern labour laws in the U.S.
Manufacturers were incensed at the enactment of fire-prevention and child-labour laws and rules that would stop them from locking their employees into death-trap factories.
“We have been regulated to death,” cried the secretary of the New York Manufacturers Association, a man unburdened by irony. “Superfluous and entirely unnecessary” declared the Wholesale Baker’s Association.
Despite these protests, workers’ rights took a step forward, and continued to advance, one battle at a time, for most of the 20th century, until the 1980s, when manufacturers discovered a way around being regulated to death. Today most of our clothing, along with most of our toys, tools, and electronic equipment, is made by offshore workers for whom the year may as well be 1911.
On Nov. 24, 2012, at least 117 people died, and 200 more were injured, in a fire in the Tazreen Fashion factory in Dakha, Bangladesh. The factory was housed in a multi-storey building with no fire escapes. Two supervisors have been charged with padlocking the exits, presumably to prevent pilfering and unauthorized breaks. At least 700 Bangladeshis have died in factory fires since 2006. This September, at least 250 Pakistani garment workers died in a factory fire. They too were locked in. This month, 14 women and girls died in a garment factory fire in China. News from China is so tightly controlled that if they had been padlocked in, we might never know about it.
This is the devil’s bargain of globalism. In exchange for cheaper trade goods the people of prosperous countries give up not only our manufacturing jobs and our hard-won labour rights, but our collective conscience as well. If a tragedy on the scale of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire happened in the U.S. or Canada today we would be devastated by the horror, outraged by the abuse that led to it, and clamouring for justice for the victims. That’s how we act when our tribe is attacked.
But when nearly a thousand Asians in six years die by fire while making our clothes, we react with relative serenity. It makes the papers for a day or two, but we’re not flying any flags at half-mast, or holding any days of vigil.
For as long as there’s cheap oil to power the container ships the globalist economy will drive a race to the bottom for workers. Brokers chase low manufacturing costs from one developing country to the next. There are international agreements in place, so-called “sweatshop laws” that purport to protect workers in developing countries, but so long as we keep seeing the re-enactment of the Triangle Shirtwaist horrors, we have to assume the agreements aren’t working.
After the Triangle fire, in a speech to the WTUL, activist Rose Schniederman said this: “I would be a traitor to these poor burned bodies if I came here to talk good fellowship. … Too much blood has been spilled … it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement.”
The only way the workers of Bangladesh, Pakistan, and dozens of poor countries can save themselves is with a strong working-class movement that includes the workers of the rich nations. They buy our resources, we buy their trade goods, we compete with them for jobs. In a global economy, we’re all one tribe. If we don’t insist on fair wages and safe, decent working conditions for them, soon enough we won’t have them for ourselves. And as if that wasn’t bad enough, we’ll continue to have their blood on our hands.
Al Pope won the Ma Murray Award for Best Columnist in B.C./Yukon in 2010 and 2002.