Opinion

The Great Debate

Death in Bangladesh: Triangle fire redux

By Kevin Baker
June 6, 2013

ILLUSTRATION: Matt Mahurin

So now we are to have Senate hearings on the deadly conditions in Bangladeshi garment factories, and so must pretend to discover what we have known all along — in seeking to save a few dollars on our next trip to the mall, we are willing to let other people suffer the worst horrors of our own past.

More than a hundred years ago, we were willing to ignore the awful conditions that prevailed in factories and sweatshops here in America. Then came the fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, in New York’s Greenwich Village, on Mar. 25, 1911, when 146 garment workers died in the space of 15 minutes. Many of them perished by falling or leaping from the ninth floor of the factory building, crashing through a glass roof, impaling on the spikes of an iron fence, smashing on the paving stones below.

The spectacle of so many workers — almost all women, many of them teenagers — dying in broad daylight, on the streets of a pleasant Manhattan neighborhood before a crowd of stunned and helpless onlookers, made their plight impossible to deny.

At the time, the average American workplace was a battleground.  According to the historian Beverly Gage, “almost a hundred [workers] were killed each day in industrial accidents.”  They died, for the most part, in falls and in fires, in cave-ins and explosions, smothered and scalded and dragged into the machines they operated. The lethal workplaces were construction sites or mines or tenement sweatshops, far from the eyes of the public that so benefited from their forced sacrifice.

The Triangle Fire pulled their deaths out into the light. The owners of the factor, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, routinely locked staircase doors to prevent their workers from stealing pennies worth of fabric in their handbags — though they admitted under oath that they had never suffered more than $15 worth of theft in any one season. The owners had no means of fire prevention on hand beyond a few buckets of water — and a long history of suspicious fires that burned up excess inventory for big insurance payoffs.

But the investigations and trials that followed the Triangle Fire did more than provide us with some of the first codes for building and workplace safety — badly as they were needed. They served as an indictment of an entire political and economic system.

Of a ruling political machine so corrupt and indifferent that, in a city already chockablock with skyscrapers, it failed to provide the fire department with ladders that rose above the sixth floor. Of an industry that routinely “sweated” its profits out of children and women with starvation wages — and paid off pimps, prostitutes, gangsters, and cops to crush any strikes. Of a social philosophy that viewed modern life as a battle of all against all, and devil take the hindmost.

The three main figures who led the investigations of working conditions after Triangle — Frances Perkins, a social worker; Al Smith, a leader in the New York State Assembly; and Robert Wagner, president of the New York State Senate — reinvigorated a labor movement that would transform this country. Smith, who was elected governor of New York in 1918, would enact seminal legislation on social welfare and workers’ rights and compensation. As the country’s first woman secretary of labor, Perkins would write much of the Social Security Act; as a U.S. senator, Wagner would push through laws finally guaranteeing American workers the right to organize and strike.

These reforms would take years to accomplish. Yet in the end they would, as much as any other, bring us “a new birth of freedom” — and a prosperity greater and more universal than we had ever known in this country. They turned a great national tragedy into an opportunity for real progress.

For decades now, American corporations have been shipping work overseas to evade many of these same laws — and what we long ago came to consider the minimal requirements of a decent society. They have done this no matter how much disruption and newfound poverty this has created in our country, and no matter how badly workers in their foreign factories have been exploited.

Some well-meaning observers, such as Nicholas Kristof in the op-ed pages of The New York Times, have argued in favor of the new sweatshops, judging them a preferable alternative to such Third World “occupations” as digging through trash heaps. But this has never been the only choice, and there is no reason why we must repeat every misery of the past.

The garment factories of Bangladesh, controlled by pitiless mobsters, crooked pols and thug capitalists, will no more lead most of their workers to the middle class than such factories did for workers in American cities a century ago.

The only wages of the sweatshop are death, as we have once again been so vividly reminded.

The Senate hearings will likely accomplish little if they are only about wheedling vague promises of better conditions and more frequent inspections from a few retailers. Such pledges will quickly be rendered meaningless by the miasma of contractors and subcontractors these companies employ.

A hundred years ago, even Blanck and Harris quickly re-formed and relocated with a series of new sweatshops — all of which were found to be in violation of the very laws their recklessness had inspired.

What the Senate and the Obama administration should do — what the rest of us must make these reluctant reformers do — is set us on a course toward a whole new social compact, just as Perkins, Smith, Wagner and so many others once did. This would mean binding, worldwide agreements that set minimum standards for wages, working conditions and the freedom to organize labor unions. These would mean real penalties, including the right and duty to refuse goods from countries that violate them. We must protect, empower, and enhance those internationals institutions that now seek to monitor such conditions.

It will be argued that this is impossible. No, it is difficult, which is a very different thing.

Every day, around the world, enormous amounts of time and effort are devoted to hammering out new international trade agreements — all of which make life easier for large corporations. There is no reason why we can’t even the score a little on behalf of their employees.

If the history of the United States and the developed world is any clue, this is likely to mean a few more dollars will be added to the cost of your next pair of jeans—and an infinitely wealthier, healthier and happier way of life for everyone. The alternative is more Bangladeshi mothers buried under rubble on your television screen, the past come to revisit us.

 

PHOTO (Insert A): People rescue garment workers trapped under rubble at the Rana Plaza building after it collapsed, in Savar, 30 km (19 miles) outside Dhaka April 24, 2013. REUTERS/Andrew Biraj

PHOTO (Insert B): Firefights looking for bodies after the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, Mar. 25 1911. REUTERS/Courtesy Library of Congress

PHOTO (Insert C): Al Smith, Frances Perkins and Robert Wagner  REUTERS/Courtesy Library of Congress

 

 

 

 

Comments
3 comments so far | RSS Comments RSS

Mr. Baker, thank you. Senator Menendez wrote a similar piece I read this morning. My hope is that maybe *something* will come of this, although another Congressional hearing doesn’t inspire me. They haven’t done very well helping the poor in our own country, why should I think they’ll help the poor in another? And then of course there are those pesky House Republicans obstructing everything to the detriment of everyone just because they’ve vowed to protect, of all American “people”, the likes of Walmart.

Here’s what I personally think it’s going to take: One large retailer like Target or Walmart to take the first step and pull their business from Bangladesh in favor of a country that conducts fair and safe labor practices. (Hey, I have a radical idea! How about OUR OWN?) That will give the American people a place to buy their goods. The other retailers will see the trend and follow suit (no pun intended).

But I’ll give Congress one last chance to prove me wrong. I’ll hold my breath one last time to see if positive, humanitarian changes can be made by our completely dysfunctional, if not totally corrupt, Congress. One last time.

Posted by JL4 | Report as abusive
 

Jl4:
When did protection of the welfare of foreign workers become the responsibility of the U.S. Congress? If it hasn’t become so, why do you chastise them for not doing it. Salving your conscience is your problem, not theirs.

Posted by Shamizar | Report as abusive
 

@Shamizar, it became our responsibility the very minute this country began engaging in Globalization. The very minute it became good business to send American factory jobs overseas to “emerging nations” and “emerging economies” for the “good of the American economy”. If regulating this is not the job of our legislators, what the f DO we pay them for? Because Congress sure as hell isn’t doing anything ELSE.

Over 1100+ people are dead in this tragedy alone, Sham, so that you can buy cheap socks. Your lack of conscience has become everyone’s problem now.

Posted by JL4 | Report as abusive
 

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