Unfortunately, accidents in the Garment industry are far too common. In two instances fires at garment factories resulted in the death of hundreds of workers. In the first case, 145 workers died when a fire started in a bin of rags. Most died as a result of neglected safety features and locked doors. The only elevator failed after 4 trips and workers who tried to escape via the stairs were met with locked doors and were burned to death. Workers died as they jumped from many stories above the ground. The second factory fire resulted in 112 deaths and 200 injured workers. Once again, workers attempting to escape the burning building were met with locked doors and stairways too narrow to accommodate the large numbers of people attempting to escape. A manager told some workers that the fire alarm was malfunctioning and that they should continue working. 12 workers perished after jumping from windows. Firefighters worked for 17 hours before successfully extinguishing the blaze. Both fires resulted in new government regulations and efforts to improve worker safety. Where and when did these tragic accidents occur? Over a hundred years separate these terrible accidents! The first occurred in the United States in 1911 at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and the second occurred in 2012 in Bangladesh at the Tanzeen Fashion Factory. Worker rights in the United States have advanced tremendously since the industrial revolution thanks to the hard work of individual citizens, government, and unions. Workers in Bangladesh and other Asian nations with significant garment industries operations face a long, uphill battle for fair wages and safe conditions. Corporations around the world rely on the low cost of labor and the lack of regulation in these countries to keep profits high and product prices low, but at what cost to human lives and dignity?
Why must profits come at the expense of human lives?
Abuse of Workers Continues in the 21st-Century
In comparing these two accidents and the working conditions from two vastly different countries and centuries, I am not saying that the fight for labor rights in the United States is over. Early factory workers in America were poorly paid and child labor was common. The workers at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory earned $15 a week while working 12 hours every day! The workers were teenage, immigrant girls who spoke no English. Fast forward to the present day America and you will find a similar abuse of immigrant workers in America. An article posted on the website for the Lower East Side Tenement Museum states the following about the present day situation in the New York garment industry:
“Even as the 21st century begins, the Lower East Side and adjoining Chinatown remain intricately tied to the garment industry. Along with the Sunset Park area of Brooklyn, many garment shops in Chinatown still work on the system of contracting. Presently, Chinese workers constitute the largest portion of immigrants working in both legal and illegal garment shops, although they are joined by other recent immigrants from the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Vietnam and myriad other nations.”
Modern day sweatshops continue to pay workers by the piece produced rather than a minimum hourly wage resulting in pay far below the federal minimum wage.
“Chinese sewing machine operators working in Chinatown and Sunset Park often work anywhere from 60 to 100 (!) hours a week, despite earning only $150 to $400 per week.”
Illegal immigrants work in fear of detection by immigration authorities and feel powerless to protest the poor wages and conditions. As the power and membership of unions have declined during the past decades, one has to wonder how the modern worker will obtain fair pay, quality working conditions, benefits, and job security.
Read more about the tragic accidents described above: