Bangladesh and the Triangle Fires: Exporting fires from rich to poor
100 years after the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, a sordid parallel exists across the globe
Laws and enforcement needed in trade agreements
On March 25 we will observe the centennial of the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York’s Washington Square, where 146 men and women garment workers died, trapped behind locked exits or jumping to their deaths from ninth-floor windows as horrified bystanders looked on helplessly from below.
With one hundred years and few differences in conditions, a sordid parallel exists today, most recently played out near Dhaka, Bangladesh, where a fire broke out on the top floors of a factory in which about 13,000 people worked. With exits locked, at least twenty-nine workers died; some after jumping from windows.
News of the garment factory in Bangladesh comes as part of a deadly drumbeat of similar reports stretching over at least a decade. Bangladesh has joined China, Indonesia, Vietnam and India as a large volume, low wage export platform for clothing. Bangladesh exports about $12.5 billion of clothing annually, and this composes three-quarters of its export earnings. What distinguishes Bangladesh though is its recent history of factory fires.
In the years after the Triangle Fire, workers were able to form unions and to create political alliances that reformed factory safety and provided for minimum wages and overtime protections. The era of the U.S. sweatshop drew to close by 1940. But the modern epidemic of factory fires in Bangladesh – and in other developing areas – are a manifestation of the ways that global competition has undercut safety and wage standards.
In effect, the rich world has exported its factory fires to the developing world. An exaggeration? Here is a preliminary view of data I have been collecting on Bangladesh fires: In 2005 there were ten garment or textile factory fires reported by the international press. At least 110 lives were lost, 77 of them in one large fire. Hundreds of injuries resulted. Most of these fires appeared to have been due to electrical faults.
In the United States, clothing workers’ unions made factory sanitation and safety issues central to their demands. From the time of the Triangle fire in 1911 through the era of Progressive reform and then during the New Deal of the Thirties they succeeded. In Bangladesh workers have been fighting for both safety and paltry increases in minimum wages. They recently won a raise from $25 to $43/month – but employers are not paying the new level.) Bangladeshi workers face a far more daunting task than the Americans from 1911 to 1940 did – global competition. Their employers threaten them with the specter of losing jobs to China or Vietnam or India. And these employers are ruthless in their suppression of rights of association. The International Labor Rights Foundation named the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) among the “Scrooge of the Year Worst Companies” of 2010 for squelching workers’ right to associate.
Many Americans think that corporate social responsibility or codes of conduct can successfully address this kind of problem. But the Bangladesh fires have been continuing for a long time – for example, two fires alone in 2000 are reported to have killed 57 people. Throughout this time the well-known brands and retailers have continued to source in swelling volume from Bangladesh – even as their codes of conduct state that safe and healthful conditions are part of the obligations of their contractors. Put simply, protecting workers with voluntary codes of corporate conduct is an idea way past its expiration date.
The U.S. and European campaigners against sweatshop conditions and their partners among workers’ organizations in the developing world are converging on solutions. I recommend one old fashioned one: law enforcement. Make good laws a condition of trade agreements and make good law enforcement a condition of trade.