Wednesday, November 28, 2012

1102 Industrial Family Values -- History Repeats

On Saturday, March 25, 1911, someone tipped a cigar ash into a bin full of oily  cotton scraps on the ninth floor of the Asch Building at 23-29 Washington Place in lower Manhattan and the Triangle Shirtwaist Company on nine, ten and eleven burst into flames.  

Managers and owners had chained shut the exit doors.  Workers -- 146 of them -- died horrible deaths.  Most of them were girls -- not women, GIRLS -- according to the Yiddish press of the day which was the main source for coverage.

Of course, this could never happen today, right?  Well, not on these shores anyway.  Enlightened management and ownership? Nah.  OSHA?  Nope. We just don’t make enough clothing to have a factory that employs that many workers here anymore.

But then, there’s Bangladesh.  Check the label on that pair of jeans or that t-shirt.  You’re likely to find “made in Bangladesh” written there.

Oh, and by the way, did you hear the one about the shirt factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh?  The death count was a bit lower than that of the Triangle fire, a “mere” 112, at minimum.  Again most of them female, most of them girls.  It happened on a Saturday, too.  Four days ago.

Did the owners chain the exit doors shut?  Yes.  And they also made sure there weren’t enough of them to let the workers out as flames and choking smoke engulfed and murdered them.

Same scenario:  people jumped from windows to safety or death, usually death.  People couldn’t get out.   The building has no emergency exit on the ground floor.

What company?  Tazreen Fashions.  Never heard of them?  Well, they’re a subsidiary of Tuba Group.  Never heard of them either?  Not surprising.  But that’s where Wal-mart got those eight dollar t-shirts you wear.  In defense of the Wal-Monster:  they had Orange-Listed this particular plant as unsafe.  That means it won’t sell Tazreen products in its stores for at least a year.  If conditions are so bad Wal’s won’t buy from them, you can only imagine how horrible they were.  But then it turns out that Tazreen was still working for Wal-mart through a subcontractor.  “We didn't know that!” cries a spokesman. “That’s a violation of our policy!” he moans.  That’s almost as good as “I didn't know the gun was loaded.”  Turns out Wally was still dealing with the factory through subcontractors. As, reportedly, were Sears and Disney.

The alarm sounds.  The response?  Get back to work!  Like the fire extinguishers?  They weren't doing much work, either.  In fact, none.

The AP quotes a woman it identifies as a worker in a factory near the fire as “Yasmine” as saying “Oh Allah, where is... my son?”  Good question.

At Triangle, the fire turned the fledgling International Ladies Garment Workers Union (now called UNITE HERE) into a large and powerful organization.

At Tazreen, something similar may be forming as thousands across Bangladesh’s vast and mostly female garment workforce.

So, more than 100 years after “Triangle,” what has changed?

I’m Wes Richards.  My opinions are my own but you’re welcome to them. ®
Please address comments to wesrichards@gmail.com
© WJR 2012

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