If you read my post on the Triangle Waist Factory Fire, or any of the stories memorializing the 100th anniversary of the blaze, this story will sound sickeningly familiar.
Many of the dead were killed after they jumped from the building in a desperate attempt to escape the inferno, police and witnesses said, while workers said some exit doors were locked.
One eyewitness…[said]…that the fire spread so fast it was like an explosion. “There was an enormous blaze. It happened so quickly, everyone rushed to the side of the building to jump off. People at the bottom were holding out nets and blankets to try and catch them,” he said.
But this isn’t an account of the Lower East Side factory in 1911. It’s a Telegraph article from December 14, 2010, reporting on a fire in a garment factory in Bangladesh. At least 25 people died, and over 100 more were injured, some severely. Most of those working were women. The factory “produces clothes primarily for American brands including Gap and J.C. Penney.”
I’m repeating this, for emphasis: “Workers said some exit doors were locked.”
The Continuing Abuse of Garment Workers
In the wake of the Triangle Factory Fire, workers in the United States made some enormous strides in improving regulation and working conditions. (SEIU describes some of them here.) However, garment workers all over the world still frequently work in dangerous, exploitative conditions.
Difficulties enforcing consistent, rigorous regulation and the availability of cheap, “disposable” labor in countries with impoverished populations make it easy for large corporations and/or their subcontractors to take advantage of workers in many developing nations.
Many popular brands — too many to name — have been implicated in overseas worker abuses. The Gap, which also operates Banana Republic and Old Navy, has frequently been accused of using subcontractors who operate sweatshops and employ child labor; BBC News uncovered child sweatshops in Cambodia in 2000, and CNN reported on similar offenses in India in 2007.
There have been numerous exposes on Nike’s use of sweatshops — like this one on the brand’s use of forced labor in Malaysia factories. In 2008, Walmart was accused of sourcing school uniforms from a factory in Bangladesh where workers worked 19 hour days for $20 a month, and were frequently kicked, beaten and physically abused.
Even brands that market themselves as “ethical” can be culpable. In 2005, the founder and (now former) CEO of LuluLemon reportedly gave a speech praising not only outsourcing garment jobs but endorsing child labor — hardly a move that inspires confidence in his company’s “ethical” treatment of workers. (As I will say below, outsourcing alone doesn’t necessarily mean exploitation — but paired with praise for pre-teen labor, it’s hard for me to give him the benefit of the doubt.)
100 Years Later, Still Sweatshops in the U.S.
While they may be easier to get away with, workplace abuses of women, men and children who make clothing aren’t limited to factories in the developing world. While “buying American” may seem like a simple solution for U.S. residents, it doesn’t necessarily mean your shirt was made by a worker getting a living wage.
Here’s just one example of many:
In July 2009, South Los Angeles’s city attorney’s office sued a garment factory for “allegedly failing to pay employees overtime and maintaining sweatshop conditions.” According to an L.A. Times article by Richard Winton, the lawsuit alleged that the factory owners and operators forced workers to work brutally long hours without breaks or overtime pay, falsified records and maintained “hazardous and unhealthy workplace conditions, including unsanitary bathrooms…cockroach and rodent infestation and exposure to harmful chemicals and fine fabric dust during the production of garments.”
And once again: “The lawsuit also alleged that access to the exits was often blocked by debris, and exits were locked at night, leaving night-shift workers with no way to exit the property in case of emergency.”
A report (pdf) by the Brennan Center for Justice on New York City’s “unregulated workforce” argues that not only are garment workers frequently severely underpaid in the five boroughs, but that “[i]n garment shops, conditions are often overcrowded, fire exits may be blocked, and the dust produced by having two much material in two small a space frequently causes respiratory problems.”
Jobs AND Rights — “They Desperately Need These Jobs”
I do want to emphasize that not all garment factories are sweatshops, and that opposing all clothing made in developing countries or imposing blanket boycotts isn’t necessarily a good solution to ensuring workers’ rights. Those who argue in favor of outsourcing factory jobs to developing countries (including Nicholas Kristof) often argue that these factories provide jobs that may not be ideal but are better than the alternatives. In many cases, that does seem to be true. That doesn’t mean, though, that because workers in these “better than the alternative” jobs have forfeited their human rights.
In 2004, several Bangladeshi garment workers traveled to Boston College to discuss abusive working conditions in garment factories. Sk Nazma, the president of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, articulates the moral tension in outsourcing factory jobs much better than I do.
She told Boston College students, “”[The workers] are not asking for a boycott. [They] need these jobs. In fact, [they] desperately need these jobs, since [they] are a very poor country. But [they] also demand that the workers be treated as human beings, with their rights respected, and paid a fair wage. And [they] want the right to organize more than anything else.”
This speech would almost certainly have rung true with the workers at the Triangle Factory, too — the women and men who worked there needed those jobs to buy food and clothes, to provide educations for their children, to care for their aging parents and to try to make lives for themselves in the United States.
Then and now, factory bosses use workers’ desperate need for jobs against them, to deny their right to organize, to be paid a living wage, and to be safe.
So Who Made Your Shirt?
In the early 1900s, the shirtwaist was the fashion of choice for women across classes — a blouse that could be plain or intricate, usually worn with a skirt. It was worn in suffragette marches, on the campuses of women’s colleges, in the exclusive clubs patronized by the rich, and even in working-class neighborhoods. David von Drehle compares the shirtwaist to blue jeans — fashionable and practical, available in a range of styles and prices, and seen everywhere.
It’s likely that very few women who bought these ready-made waists thought about the Russian Jewish teenager who had set the sleeves and the young Italian woman who had sewed in the buttons. Although the garment workers in New York City, Philadelphia and Massachusetts had garnered some publicity with fiercely fought strikes, the garment workers were generally easy to ignore. They were poor, they were women, they were immigrants and many didn’t speak English.
Here’s what I’m wearing now: a hand-me-down sweater with a tag saying it was made in Hong Kong, Express blue jeans, and Hanes socks. Any one of those pieces of clothing, and all of them, could have been produced in factories that are unsafe and exploitative.
In 2010, Hanes was inducted into the International Labor Rights Forum’s “Sweatshop Hall of Shame.” In 2008, the state of New York closed down a factory that it said had been paying its workers “sweatshop wages“; the factory made clothes for Macy’s, The Gap, Banana Republic, Coldwater Creek, Victoria’s Secret and Express.
Like the women of 1911, I don’t have to face the people who are stitching my clothes together. On the anniversary of the Triangle Fire, I am starting to face the reality of what my ignorance and apathy might cost them.
Photo is from Marissa Orton's photostream, reused with thanks under Creative Commons 2.0 Generic Attribution License.