Two separate agreements by European and American retailers around fire safety in Bangladesh mark an important step forward in protecting the lives of Bangladeshi garment factory workers. Because they were signed months after the Rana Plaza collapse, in which 1,127 workers died, it’s tempting to link the two events: a horrifying tragedy, followed by policy change.
But that thinking misses a critical fact about garment manufacturing in Bangladesh, where for decades factory workers — often without formalized power — put themselves at great risk by speaking out against abuses, building worker solidarity, and educating the public. It’s this worker-led organizing that has set the stage for real political and legislative change, and made a final massive tragedy impossible to ignore.
The clear — almost eerie — American parallel is the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City, which also generated new labor laws and corporate accountability. In 1911, 146 mostly young Jewish and Italian immigrant women were asphyxiated or jumped to their deaths to escape a fire at the Triangle factory. They had been locked in the factory so that they wouldn’t steal clothes, working 60-hour weeks in sweatshop conditions.
Other fires before the Triangle disaster generated no such government response. In 1909 Clare Lemlich, a garment worker and leader of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union, called for a mass strike in response to the terrible wages and working conditions of thousands of women garment workers in New York City. The “Uprising of 20,000,” as it was called, resulted in a 14-week work stoppage and an agreement from companies to increase wages and working conditions, though they did not allow workers to unionize. Triangle refused to sign the agreement. When the Triangle fire broke out two years later, it was the final straw that pushed New York State to modernize its labor laws to some of the most progressive in the country. Frances Perkins, President Roosevelt’s Labor Secretary, watched and was deeply moved by the Triangle fire; she later used the New York State laws as a model for the New Deal’s labor legislation.
Like the Triangle factory fire, the Rana Plaza building collapse was also preceded by a number of other fires and almost a decade of worker-led organizing for better wages and conditions. In 2006, garment workers filled the streets of Dhaka in the first and largest public protest since the garment market boom in the 1970s. Demanding better wages, workers protested for a month, pushing the government to finally establish a wage commission. Four years later, the minimum wage was raised to $38 a month, an 80 percent increase, but still the lowest wage for garment workers in the world.