Coordinator for Educational Programs
Triangle Shirtwaist Fire New York 1911
When we shop for clothing, price is often paramount in our considerations and we too often neglect to ask who makes our clothing and what are their wages and work conditions, until these conditions become deadly and appear on the front pages of our newspapers. I could be referring to last month’s factory fire in Bangladesh, but the “high cost of low prices” has a long history and the parallels between the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York and the fire at the Tazreen Fashions factory in Bangladesh are eerily similar. (To learn more about the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, check out the memorial created by State Senator Serphin Maltese, who lost family members in the fire. For more information on the Tazreen Fashions factory fire go to “Fatal Fire in Bangladesh Highlights the Dangers Facing Garment Workers” “Garment Workers Stage Angry Protest After Bangladesh Fire” and “Horrific Fire Revealed a Gap in Safety for Global Brands.”)
Both factories paid low wages to a predominantly female work force. In the early 20th century, New York was the center of the garment industry and Bangladesh today exports $18 billion in clothing, second only to China. Triangle sold blouses to the major department stores; Tazreen produced clothing for Wal-Mart and other global retailers. The New York Times coverage of the two fires sadly makes clear that workers in both factories had similar deaths because of unsafe conditions.
Witnesses described a desperate scene, as workers leapt from the upper floors of the factory, trying to land on nearby rooftops and escape the smoke and flames. Others suffocated inside the factory building, as the blaze apparently rendered stairwells impassable. . . “These international, Western brands have a lot of responsibility for these fire issues,” said Ms. Akter, the executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity. “In this factory, there was a pile of fabrics and yarn stored on the ground floor that caught fire. Workers couldn’t evacuate through the stairs. What does this say about compliance?
The New York Times, November 26, 2012, “Garment Workers Stage Angry Protest After Bangladesh Fire”
Most of the victims were suffocated or burned to death within the building but some who fought their way to the windows and leaped met death as surely, but perhaps more quickly, on the pavements below. . . . The one little fire escape was never resorted to by any of the doomed victims. Some of them escaped by running down the stairs, but in a moment or two this avenue was cut off by flame. The girls rushed to the window and looked down at Greene Street, 100 feet below them. Then one poor, little creature jumped. There was a plate glass protection over part of the sidewalk, but she crashed through it, wrecking it and breaking her body into a thousand pieces. Then they all began to drop . . .
The New York Times, March, 26, 1911, “141 MEN AND GIRLS DIE IN WAIST FACTORY FIRE; TRAPPED HIGH UP IN WASHINGTON PLACE BUILDING; STREET STREWN WITH BODIES; PILES OF DEAD INSIDE.”
The Triangle Shirtwaist fire led to the creation of the Factory Investigating Commission led by Senator Robert F. Wagner (Chair), Assemblyman Alfred E. Smith (Vice- Chair), along with a reinvigorated movement to protect workers and improve factory conditions and the enactment of 25 New York State laws to implement the Commission’s recommendations.
After the deadly fire in Bangladesh, thousands of protesters took to the streets to demand justice. The horrific fire there, like the one a century earlier, makes clear that workers cannot achieve justice without the right to organize unions and employers and the global corporations whom they sell to must respect the rights and lives of their workers above that of their profits now stained by the deaths of 112 workers. As we shop for clothing, we must also think about the consequences of our consumption.