Disasters Class: Sweatshops, Then and Now
Today in class you watched a documentary about the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. You also read articles about the much more recent sweatshop tragedy in Dhaka, Bangladesh.
Using specifics from the film and the articles you read, discuss some of the similarities between the Triangle fire and the Dhaka building collapse. Your essay should be 350 to 500 words and should have a clear argument. In other words, in comparing these two events, your essay should tell us something new and non-obvious that leads us to a better understanding of the history of labor.
The Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911 and the 2013 Rana Plaza building collapse share many striking similarities. Both incidents are high profile, but not unique, disasters that were the result of an exploitative employer. The fire and the collapse mainly claimed the lives of poor and young workers that had no choice but to work in terrible conditions. The legal response to those in charge of the disaster sites are even comparable, public out rage strong enough to bring the arrest of and charges against the owners, but not necessarily strong enough to convict them. At first glance, one can understand the cliché “history repeats itself.” Except, the Rana Plaza had an extremely important difference that didn’t exist at the time of the fire: globalization.
The similarities between the tragedies are overwhelming, on March 25th 1911, and April 24th 2013 poor, innocent workers were killed because of inhumane and dangerous work conditions. The owners of the triangle shirtwaist company, Mr. Harris and Mr. Blanck, locked their workers inside their building to ensure that all employees’ bags could be checked before they left, and the fire safety in their factory consisted of some buckets of water. Locking those doors killed 146 garment workers, mostly poor immigrant women. Mr. Rana the owner of the Rana Plaza building that collapsed heeded his employees’ concerns and had his building inspected, the engineer that came to inspect the building was horrified at the condition it was in, and warned that the building was going to collapse. Mr. Rana’s employees were not warned, as they literally saw cracks form in the building they were threatened with docked pay if they wouldn’t stay in the building to work. 1,129 people were killed, more than 2,000 more were injured. Mr. Harris and Mr. Blanck were brought up on charges of first and second degree manslaughter, but were acquitted. Mr Rana was arrested the 28th of April and is in court custody, but the trial has been slow, Mr. Rana may get the conviction he deserves, but that will mostly be because of international pressure, the key difference between the triangle shirtwaist fire, and the plaza collapse.
These tragedies are eerily similar, but they are remarkably different also, or at least, the response to them has been. Harris and Blanck got off scot-free because society at the time viewed capitalists as key pillars of society, while women, immigrants, and the poor were nothing more than dregs. This societal abuse is a common side affect of industrialization, and sure enough the same sort of discrimination and lack of care from those in power lead to the collapse in Bangladesh. However, unlike in 1911, it wasn’t just the home nation that was appalled, it was the whole world. Industrialized nations like the U.S.A, and members of the EU, voiced their concern for the poor worker’s rights, called for justice for those responsible, and reforms to stop such horrible events from happening again. 100 years ago, the idea that a coalition of nations would stand for worker’s rights would be laughable. That alone show’s that, at least superficially, progress has been made for labor rights. How much progress has been made exactly is debatable.
There are many similarities between the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 and the Rana Plaza building collapse earlier this year. Many of the victims were underpaid women, working in sweatshop conditions. Mass producing garments every day, the women struggle to make a living wage and are essentially prisoners in the cycle of poverty. In the immediate aftermath, the world was outraged at the conditions in which the women worked and many died in.
However, the impact of the Triangle disaster was much more poignant because it cost American lives and impacted American production and American consumption. The factory collapse in Bangladesh is proving to have less of an impact because the producers are different from the consumers. In New York, 1/5th of the population came out in solidarity to honor the victims. The social push from not only the workers but socialites, politicians, and others used the fire as a catalyst to achieve their goals of safe labor.
The American consumers are far removed from the situation in Bangladesh. As “involved” as the American consumer is, they achieve gratification for “liking” Facebook pages demeaning the owners of the building, starting petitions on Change.org, and saying they’ll abstain from supporting trades that use slave labor. However good their intentions, they never leave the safety of their domicile in the way that a post fire 1911 consumer did. If this tragedy was repeated in New York, Americans would be outraged and in the streets. However, it’s just not realistic for them to travel to Dhaka to push reform. In the same way, Americans can demand their government step in on US soil, but it’s not realistic to make demands on a foreign government that has little or no responsibility to listen to them.
It also seems that the economy of Bangladesh isn’t ready to accept the much needed reform. Near the end of the Gilded Age, America was much wealthier than Bangladesh is now. Even though the country has standards now for 5% of annual profits deposited in employee welfare funds and a right to form unions, it doesn’t mean that the situation is fixed. There are still 4 million garment workers in Bangladesh and activists aren’t pleased with the laws that the government has tried to pass. They feel that it was a kneejerk reaction to appease their foreign trade partners. The workers feel that little has actually changed in their working conditions.
Separated by over a century and on different sides of the globe, the similarities between the Dhaka building collapse in Bangladesh and the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York is more than a simple coincidence. The victims, primarily impoverished young women and children, died due to the negligence of their employers who thrived off the destitution of the labor force. How could the sins of past return in such a catastrophic way to the Twenty-First Century after unprecedented reform followed the Triangle fire? While the working conditions became steadily more humane in the United States, the abuse of labor was exported to developing countries where the poor had only to choose between a sweatshop and starvation.
Both disasters were the result of a societal problem as old as humanity itself: the rule of the few over the poverty of the masses. In New York, the magnificence of Broadway and the Lady’s Mile stretched out only blocks from the sweatshops that kept the windows stocked with their characteristic opulence. After disasters such as the Triangle fire, developed nations would no longer accept these atrocities in their cities, but demand for the products which sweatshops provided continued to expand. Economists helped clear the Western conscience by suggesting that workers would be worse off without their influence, but just as in 1911, disaster would illuminate the extent of abuse.
The aftermath of the Dhaka collapse mirrored the grief of New York a century prior. A national day of mourning took place on the day following the collapse in Bangladesh, just as one in ten New Yorkers attended the funerals for the Triangle fire. While the public mourned the lost workers, reform was on the lips of legislators. Thirty labor rights bills drew legitimacy from the Triangle fire, and we now wait to see if the same will come from the Dhaka collapse. It would be hard to argue that nothing will change from the collapse of 2013, with sanctions from President Obama already restructuring trade agreements with the country, but to what extent? Bangladesh will likely make reforms in earnest, paving the way for holistic changes in the system that allowed the collapse over the years to come. If history is to repeat itself however, these changes will not attack the root cause. Bangladesh will merely pass the baton to another country too impoverished to defend itself from the consumption of developed nations, just as the United States did a century ago.
The issue of labor laws and workplace safety is as old as industrialization itself, yet the world still sees many of the same issues in the present day as it did a century ago. In Dhaka Bangladesh during April of 2013 a nine story high factory collapsed due to structural incompetency, trapping many sweatshop workers in the rubble. A parallel to this incident can be drawn to the triangle shirtwaist factory fire of 1911. Both cases occurred during a boom in the industrialization period of their respective nations, both involved sweatshop laborers who were mostly women and children, both had many casualties, and both caused a political intervention to private factory owners. Importantly, both events were preceded by a voiced concern about workplace safety. First the fire in 1911 was preceded by a massive worker strike and call for unionization, and again earlier this year the building was deemed unsafe by an inspector. It is important to take note of that specific context to help better understand why these events were so tragic. One might ask why these two eerily similar tragedies are happening with over a century in between them. A closer examination will show integral differences in these events.
While it is given that at face value, the evidence suggests that nothing had changed over a century, the real differences lie beneath the surface. Most prominent among these differences is the scale of industry in both times. In 1911, the triangle shirtwaist factory was producing final product in New York City that was to be sold in New York City. The current market is on a much greater scale, having factories in Bangladesh produce goods that were to be sold all over the world to countries like the US. This difference in magnitude of industry brings an important stance on how the tragedy was viewed, whether it be by a single nation or by the global market as a whole. This also leads to a difference in how the legislative reform is implemented. After the tragedy in 1911, it was up to the New York state legislature to pass reforms on the work procedures in their state, and have the rest of the nation follow suit as a result. Contrary to that, in the modern market it took intervention by US president Barack Obama for the legislation to be brought up in Bangladesh. This example captures the biggest change in the history of labor in the last century, globalization.
On the surface, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire (1911), the Rana Plaza collapse (2013) and the Tazreen Fashions fire (2012) all have several similarities. All three events were caused by deplorable working conditions in what is considered a sweatshop, and occurred at the same time within the economic paradigms of the US and Bangladesh. The people affected the most were the most vulnerable in society at the time of each tragedy. The Triangle fire mainly affected young, female immigrant workers. Rana Plaza and Tazreen Fashions affected the poor, who were below the poverty line and desperate for work. The three tragedies started a conversation for labor reform in both countries between the workers, factory owners and each country’s government. This conversation has had profound and lasting changes within the US, but developments in Bangladesh are still young and the impact has yet to be seen. If a deeper look is taken, it can be seen that different forces were at play to prompt change. In the US it was intrinsic forces that catalyzed change, and in Bangladesh it was extrinsic forces.
The intrinsic change occurred in the US because it was what the masses wanted. In the beginning, the strikes and protests of the women made very little progress to spark change. The attention of powerful figures was necessary. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire helped gain the attention required. Once politicians and powerful figures, such as Anne Morgan, supported the necessary reform, change happened. The reforms occurred because the politicians that supported reform won votes, creating a political climate that supported labor reform. This was a natural or an internal change that occurred within the US political system. No external forces were at play to prompt change or create obstructions. Because of the internal nature of these changes, the reform measures have lasted and been sustained.
The labor reform in Bangladesh is occurring because of the opposite reason it occurred in the US. The workers can strike, but the masses have very little political power or support from political elites. The political elites are often the garment factory owners because 80% of the economy is garment exports. The political system favors these owners because they can bribe politicians and fund campaigns. The owners like Delowar Hossain are able to get away with deplorable conditions and tragedies such as the Tazreen Fashions fire. This system has no way of prompting change from within itself. The Obama Administration has stepped in to be the Anne Morgan for the Bangladeshi garment workers. Trade privileges were suspended unless reform occurred. An “action plan” was proposed by the administration to implement change. The change is largely being demanded by an external power. The change is not internally occurring. Because reform is occurring from outside forces, reform may not be able to sustain itself and continue indefinitely. The economic ramifications may foment enough political upheaval in Bangladesh to propose and pass proper legislative measures to perpetuate reform.