Inustrial Fires and History Lessons

A fire in a garment factory in Bangladesh killed over 100 workers earlier this week. The story continues to make the news as information comes out about some of the circumstances of the fire. Workers claim that managers actually locked employees in the building because they thought it was a false alarm. These sorts of actions are lighting their own fire under groups like the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights who have been critical of the garment industry and have been lobbying for safety improvements. This fire and other recent incidents in China involving factories that make iPhones are stirring advocacy and labor groups to demand safety reforms. 
The managers and owners of the factory should have been paying more attention in history class.  The events of last week in Bangladesh bear a striking resemblance to labor related events in our history.  The outcomes here – and we certainly hope for similar outcomes there – resulted in changes in labor laws and the beginnings of Federal oversight of manufacturing organizations. 

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire occurred just over a century ago in New York City causing the deaths of 146 garment workers.  The fire would forever change American labor laws and worker safety standards and accelerate the development of the labor movement in America, most directly in the development of the International Ladies Garment Workers Union.  

The Triangle Shirtwaist Company employed over 500 women working in the top three floors of a ten-story building in the Manhattan Garment District.  They were paid to sew clothing items, just as Bangladeshi workers are today, except that the Triangle seamstresses were paid piecework while reports are Bangladeshi workers earn $.19 an hour. The Triangle Company managements was concerned about theft and unauthorized time away from the sewing machines; they locked the doors.   It was on March 25, 1911 that a small fire started in the cutting room on the eighth floor. The initial flames gathered fuel from loose cloth and spread to the upper floors.  As panic spread, people ran to the exits here they were met with locked doors.  A single fire escape at the rear of the building collapsed and cut off escape.  Trapped women  jumped from open windows and even in groups from the top of the building.  Bodies lay everywhere in the street. 

The Triangle factory owners were arrested and charged with manslaughter, but they were acquitted. They eventually settled with families of the victims for an amount reported about $75 per victim. We don’t know how high the arrests will go in Bangladesh, but several managers and supervisors have been arrested. It will take some time to see how they fare. The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association has already indicated it will pay about $1,300 in initial compensation to the families of the dead.  They will also give the relatives of victims their monthly salary, about $56 per month, for at least 10 years.

The most important outcome of the triangle shirtwaist factory fire where the social changes that followed. These not only involve developments in the labor movement in the United States, but led to changes in compensation for injured workers and ultimately for workers compensation insurance. It paved the way for a workers compensation law in New York State in 1914. At that, the New York State law actually lagged Washington State which had passed similar legislation in 1911.

We can only hope that history repeats itself in the Bangladesh case. There is a growing movement in the US to buy local and by US products. The Bangladesh fire reminds us that our international competitors don’t only compete on wages, reportedly $.19 an hour for these workers, but compete in an unregulated environment that can be extraordinarily detrimental to workers.

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