Sadly, it’s not history from March 25, 1911:
Witnesses said the workers, mostly women, ran for safety as the fire engulfed the plant but were unable to get through narrow exits.
"Many jumped out from the windows and were injured, or died on the spot," Milon, a resident, said.
A fire this past Saturday, November 24, 2012 at a garment factory in Savar, northwest of Dhaka, Bangladesh evoked memories of New York's deadly 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, killing over a hundred workers in the multi-story factory building. As with the early reports of many tragedies, the details are still confused and often contradictory. The death toll appears to be galvanizing in the neighborhood of 110 to 124 workers in the factory, variously reported as eight to ten stories tall, with some of the upper floors apparently under construction. The death toll might have been far worse but for the fact that many of the factory’s 5,000-plus workers had left for the day, leaving only about 600 remaining in the ill-protected building, which lacked fire escapes, featured narrow, constricted stairs, workspaces cluttered with combustible product and rubbish, and a lack of the most basic fire safety features.
The Tazreen Fashions factory, owned by Tuba Group, manufactured clothing for many Western retailers. According to a press release from the International Labor Rights Forum,
In addition to finding evidence that the factory produced Walmart’s Faded Glory brand, researchers found over a dozen other brand logos on clothing and documents in the factory, including Ace, C&A, Dickies, Fashion Basics, Sean Combs Co.'s Enyce brand, Edinburgh Woollen Mill's brands P.G. field and Country Rose, Hippo, Infinity Woman, Karl Rieker GMBH & Co., Kebo Raw, Kik, Piaza Italia, Soffe, and True Desire.The predominantly-female workforce in Bangladesh garment factories earn as little as ten to twenty cents an hour for their labors – often in excess of 80 hours a week. There are virtually no worker protections, labor regulation is lax, and unions virtually non-existent. The consequences are predictable.
Bangladesh’s garment industry, the second-largest exporter of clothing after China, has a notoriously poor fire safety record. Since 2006, more than 500 Bangladeshi workers have died in factory fires, according to Clean Clothes Campaign, an anti-sweatshop advocacy group in Amsterdam. Experts say many of the fires could have easily been avoided if the factories had taken the right precautions. Many factories are in cramped neighborhoods and have too few fire escapes, and they widely flout safety measures. The industry employs more than three million workers in Bangladesh, most of them women.But responsibility rests on far more expansive shoulders than Walmart, Hilfiger, and the rest of the outsourced garment industry. Over a century ago, Florence Kelley, the first Executive Secretary of the National Consumers League said,
Activists say that global clothing brands like Tommy Hilfiger and the Gap and those sold by Walmart need to take responsibility for the working conditions in Bangladeshi factories that produce their clothes.
New York Times
To live means to buy.
To buy means to have power.
To have power means to have responsibility.
In my post several years ago on the 1948 environmental disaster in Donora, Pennsylvania, I wrote:
The United States, with less than 5 percent of the world's population, consumes 30% of its resources. While that represents a grossly unbalanced degree of consumption, it also constitutes a tremendous amount of power -- and responsibility. We can make cleaner production happen world-wide simply because we, as the largest consumer nation, demand it. We need only the will to apply the power we hold.That the same sentiment applies to the conditions under which our fellow workers in other countries toil goes without saying. While we can hope that our government finds the will to force greater attention to worker safety from our trading partners, we have to recognize that these conditions do not arise without our complicity. And they can be stopped with our cooperation.
These things are not new, and they should not be surprising. History can teach, but it is up to us to learn.
Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. When change is absolute there remains no being to improve and no direction is set for possible improvement: and when experience is not retained, as among savages, infancy is perpetual. Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.Organizations involved in anti-sweatshop activity:
Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights
International Labor Rights Forum
US Labor Education in the Americas Project
List of organizations at Sweatfree
List of organizations at Global Exchange
This list is by no means intended to be complete. Please add organizations you know of in the comments and I'll add to the list when I return.