Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire: Workers’ Rights 99 Years Later

Yesterday marked 99 years since the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory burned on New York’s Lower East Side, killing 146 of its 500 workers, who were locked inside the building.The fire, and the campaign and reform for garment workers’ rights to follow, is well chronicled in Cornell’s Triangle Factory Fire online exhibit, where you can find photos, letters and original articles from 1911. It’s well worth a look, especially since nearly 100 years later, garment workers around the world still have to fight for a living wage, the right to organize and even their basic safety.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, Photographer Unknown

Earlier this year, 21 workers were trapped and killed in Bangladesh when a fire swept through the Garib & Garib Sweater Factory, which made clothing for companies like H&M. The factory had been audited just months before, but clearly key safety issues had been missed. (Ken Silverstein touched upon the issue of ineffective audits in his Harper’s piece “Shopping for Sweat,” which I linked to in January.)

This past Tuesday, in Stockholm, I met Malin Eriksson, who coordinates the Clean Clothes Campaign, a worldwide network committed to improving working conditions in clothing factories. She talked about how a well organized workforce could essentially serve as an in-house audit team on a daily basis. But that barely seems realistic when most of these workers have no job security and can’t afford to jeopardize their income by protesting unfair conditions. (Another CCC representative estimated that in countries where the organization is active, less than 5% of the garment workforce is unionized.)

When I asked Malin about Nicholas Kristof’s argument that abominable work conditions in a factory are better than no work at all, she explained that’s why the CCC’s urgent actions, which directly implement workers’ wishes usually involve letter-writing campaigns, rather than boycotts of the garments they produce.

In the case of the Garib & Garib fire, CCC has organized campaigns to demand medical care for injured workers, compensation for deceased workers’ families, a criminal investigation of the fire (CCC claims it wasn’t only preventable, it was predictable) and the direct support of these demands from brands doing business with the factory.

H&M Corporate Social Responsibility Manager Ingrid Schullström announced today that the company would donate 1 million Swedish Krona (about US $135,000) for preventative safety measures at factories in Bangladesh, and that they are waiting for reports commissioned from Save the Children and Incidin Bangladesh before deciding on further reparations for bereaved families.

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