The global sweatshop economy, a century after the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

The date was March 25, 1911. As employees were getting ready to leave work at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Lower Manhattan, a fire broke out on the ninth floor. Within minutes, fire spread uncontrollably as discarded remnants and packing materials strewn across the floor ignited. Panicked workers rushed to find a way to safety, but found exit doors locked. In just 18 minutes, 146 people—123 young women and 23 men—were dead. Many were found huddled together, their scorched remains piled up against the locked doors. One hundred feet below on Greene Street, the sidewalk was littered with the mangled bodies of young women who leapt to their deaths to escape the inferno.

The horrors of that day marked a watershed moment in the struggle for better working conditions for American laborers. Shortly after the fire, 400,000 people filled the streets of New York demanding change. In the months and years following the fire, determined workers organized and joined together in unions as never before. Labor laws protecting the rights of workers and reasonable fire-safety regulations were written and passed on the local and federal level.

But the conditions that led to the tragedy at the Triangle are still with us. And, sadly, it’s easy to ignore what’s going on because the sweatshops are no longer located along the avenues and side streets in Manhattan’s garment district, but are hidden from our view in cities and towns continents away. More than a century later, workers across the Third World produce the inexpensively priced clothing we wear by laboring in sweatshops where the working conditions are nearly the same as those at the Triangle. Every day exploitation, injury, and loss of life are facts of life in factories in cities whose names, like Dhaka and Savar, become known to us only through the most tragic events.

For example:

  • On December 14, 2010, twenty-nine workers were killed in the Hamin Factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh. At the time the workers were manufacturing children’s clothing for Gap. Fire broke out on the tenth floor and then spread to the eleventh. Emergency exit doors were locked to prevent theft. In a scene horrifyingly reminiscent of the day in 1911, desperate workers, who knew the building had no exterior fire escapes, leapt out of upper-floor windows and landed on the street below. In addition to the twenty-nine who lost their lives, hundreds were injured.
  • On November 24, 2012, one hundred and twelve workers were killed at the Tazreen Fashions Factory—again in the city of Dhaka—when a fire broke out on the building’s ground floor (where refuse was stored illegally). As the fire spread below, managers ordered workers on the floors above to ignore fire alarms and continue working at their sewing machines. At the time, clothes were being manufactured through a subcontractor for Walmart and Sears.
  • On April 24, 2013, in Savar, Bangladesh (part of the greater Dhaka region), Rana Plaza—an eight-story-high building in which apparel was being manufactured for sale by Walmart, JCPenney, and Children’s Place—collapsed, killing 1,135 people and injuring 2,500. In violation of local codes, the building’s owners had added additional floors to a building built on swampy land and ignored warnings of structural deficiencies, forcing workers to continue working in a facility that proved unable to support the weight of heavy machinery and generators.

Today there are 4,500 garment factories in Bangladesh alone, employing more than 4 million workers, most of whom are young women and many of whom are children, at a wage of $37 a month, or 28 cents an hour. In 1911, the young women working in the Triangle factory were earning 14 cents an hour. Take a moment and think about those numbers. Adjusted for inflation and cost of living, that 14 cents from 1911 is worth $3.18 today. That means that garment workers working for 28 cents in the twenty-first century are earning one-tenth of what garment workers were earning more than one hundred years ago.

In the face of so much deprivation and exploitation, if we are the country that we would like to believe we are—that is, a country that claims to be committed to social justice—then there are some hard questions we should be asking of ourselves. The first of those is the most basic. “Will we bother to draw the connection between the clothing we wear and the working conditions of people who produce it?” The second is, “Do we care about what’s happening to those who work on our behalf halfway around the world?” The third is, “Once we know about unsafe working conditions, low wages, and exploitation, are we willing to ignore what we know and accept or tolerate it because we need (or prefer) low-cost clothing?” And most difficult of all: “What does it say about us if we turn away from the suffering through ignorance, willful blindness, or a lack of compassion?”

The context for those questions and perhaps a few answers may be found in a powerful video produced by the Institute for Global Labor and Human Rights and narrated with passion by Executive Director Charles Kernaghan.