The Bangladesh Factory Collapse and The Legacy of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

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Last week, a garment factory collapsed in Bangladesh, India. Initial reports claimed that at least 87 people died in the accident, but the total of number of deaths from the collapse is now believed to be about four hundred, with thousands of others wounded. Massive cracks were reported in the building the day before the collapse, but the owner Mohammed Sohel Rana ignored the warning signs and demanded his employees keep working. On Sunday, April 28, Rana was arrested trying to flee Bangladesh, and will face responsibility for the collapse.

This tragic story has understandably attracted much international attention. Unfortunately, it’s not the first time that an event like this has occurred. Last November, a fire at a different Bangladeshi garment factory killed 112 people (we wrote about it here). Another factory collapse eight years ago, killing 64. And these are just a few of the incidences of tragically unsafe working conditions in Bangladesh, where the garment industry brings in some $20 billion a year, but the workers typically make little more than $38 a month.

The wreckage of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.

The wreckage of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.

Hearing about these incidents, one is reminded of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911. In that famous tragedy, 146 workers at a New York garment factory were killed when a fire broke out during work hours. The fire spread quickly due to unsafe work conditions, and workers were unable to escape the blaze because the factory’s owners had locked the doors in an effort to prevent the workers from taking unauthorized breaks. The fire attracted national attention, and prompted new laws and regulations in America to protect workers.

Unfortunately, those laws are not in effect in other parts of the world, where sweat shops and unsafe conditions still are dominant. (That’s not to say that American companies don’t continue to flaunt rules and safety regulations: the Texas fertilizer plant that exploded on April 17, 2013, killing more than fifteen people and injuring many more, had 1,350 times the amount of explosive ammonium nitrate than what is allowed by the Department of Homeland Security on its premises.) But with the constant international scrutiny allowed by the internet, one hopes that things will change.The changes may even be made for economic reasons: in the wake of the Bangladesh collapse, many of the major corporations whose products are made there are working on plans to ensure worker safety. Meanwhile, the European Union is considering taking action against Bangladesh, threatening the preferential treatment the country receives from the Union that makes these factories so profitable.  Sadly, like with the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, it takes an unthinkable tragedy to spur any kind of action.

To learn more about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, please check out The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire (ISBN# 978-1-59935-099-8) by Donna Getzinger from your local library, or purchase it as an Ebook from Morgan Reynolds Publishing.

-Josh Barrer

Associate Editor

 

“The floods of water from the firemen’s hose that ran into the gutter were actually stained red with blood.” -William Shepherd on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

One hundred years ago today, tragedy struck the New York City garment district when the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory caught fire and blazed to ash and rubble, causing the deaths of 149 factory workers, most of whom were young female immigrants.

As the building went up in flames, the workers fought to find ways out, but the door to one exit was locked, the elevator was jammed, and people became frantic. Instead of being overcome by the fire, the girls (and some men) chose to jump from the eighth, ninth, and tenth stories.

Benjamin Levy, a junior exec. from a manufacturer down the street, witnessed the chaos:

Bodies were falling all around us, and two or three of the men with me were knocked down. The girls just leaped wildly out of the windows and turned over and over before reaching the sidewalk.

Just one year before, these same women who were jumping to their deaths had gone on strike for cleaner and safer work conditions, and according to William Shepherd, that fateful day, “These dead bodies were the answer.”

According The New York Times, “The fire accomplished what the strike could not. From the city’s grief sprang  government investigations and transformative legislation, first in New York State and then the nation.”

However, the argument has been made that wretched working conditions have not disappeared, but rather have been outsourced to third world countries where labor is cheap and the rights of workers are low priority.

According to The World, Robert Ross of Clark University says, “Effectively what we have done is exported our sweatshops and exported our factory fires. And it’s as if the 1911 conditions had been lifted up by an evil hand and dropped into Bangladesh.”

What do you think? What could or should be done to remedy the situation abroad?

Note: Until last month, the identities of six individuals who perished in the fire were unknown. The New York Times tells the story of how, 100 years later, the five Jane Does and one John Doe came to be identified.

Adrianne Loggins
Associate Editor

*Quotes that are not sited in this post are from Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in the American Workers series  by Morgan Reynolds, which received a Starred Review from School Library Journal and was a recommended Feminist Book by the Amelia Bloomer Project

Published in: on March 25, 2011 at 8:45 pm  Leave a Comment  
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