Near the end of the workday on March 25, 1911 a fire flared up in a bin filled with scrap material under a cutter's table in the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, a factory in Greenwich Village, which made women's blouses, known at the time as "shirtwaists". The business, which occupied the top three floors of the ten story Asch Building, employed roughly 500 persons, most of them young immigrant women.
The fire, likely started by a match or cigarette dropped into the bin filled with material, spread rapidly. Most workers found out about the blaze when the work area around them burst into flames. Efforts to evacuate were complicated by a variety of factors. One stairwell was blocked by the fire. The doors to another had been locked to prevent employees from sneaking out and stealing fabric. The foreman who had the key to those doors fled the scene as soon as the fire started leaving the doors secured. Elevators that served the factory became inoperable.
Terrified employees crowded onto an exterior fire escape to escape the smoke and flames. The overloaded fire escape collapsed, and twenty workers plunged to their deaths. Another sixty-two workers, unable to escape the fire, jumped from the burning building to their deaths on the pavement below. Dozens more workers were simply overcome by the fire. In the end 146 people, 129 women and 17 men, died.
Public outrage stemming from the fire led to a new focus on industrial safety. In New York City, a Committee on Public Safety was formed to identify specific problems with workplace safety and lobby for new legislation. The New York State Legislature created the Factory Investigating Commission to investigate factory working conditions and recommend measures to improve safety. New laws were enacted in New York and across the nation, mandating better building access and egress, fireproofing requirements, the availability of fire extinguishers and the installation of alarm systems and automatic sprinklers.
As a nation we had made a fundamental decision that workers deserved safer, more humane working conditions. We mourned the deaths of the workers who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire but consoled ourselves that their deaths had prompted us to take the necessary steps to ensure that such a tragedy would never happen again.
We were wrong.
On September 11, 2012, a garment factory in the city of Karachi in Pakistan burst into flames. So intense were the flames that it took firefighters and rescue workers well over a day to get it under control. Hundreds of workers were trapped inside. The building had metal grilles over the windows and no fire exits. Many workers, unable to reach safety, jumped to their deaths from the upper floors of the factory.
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One surviving textile worker, Allah Warayo, described the scene inside the burning factory this way, " "We started running towards the exit. There were 150-200 people all running and pushing each other. I fell down unconscious. Then I managed to get some air from a vent. I started screaming. A crane made a hole in the wall and I was able to jump. I begged the rescue workers to help my relatives, but no-one paid any attention." Mr. Warayo first attempted to get out through a window but was unable to pull loose the metal grill covering it. He also tried to get out via a back stairwell but found, that the doors had been locked by supervisors concerned that employees were stealing from the factory.
At least 289 people were killed.
Twenty-four hours earlier 25 people were burned alive in a separate fire in a shoe factory in the Pakistani city of Lahore.
Neither one of these incidents was an aberration. The truth is that fires in textile factories in the developing world are commonplace and have been for a number of years. These sites are jammed with stacks of cotton and flammable dies, and safety measures such as fire exits and fire alarms are non-existent. Even where there are technically rules regarding these things, inspectors are bribed to the look the other way and enforcement is nil.
Even a casual review of news items shows the terrifying frequency with which these disasters occur. In Bangladesh alone hundreds of textile workers have lost their lives in fires in recent years. A December 2010 fire in a factory in Dhaka making clothing for Tommy Hilfiger, Calvin Klein, Gap, J.C. Penney, Target, Kohl's, Abercrombie & Fitch, and the North Face, is representative.
Electrical wiring overloaded by sewing equipment sparked and ignited the flames. Workers, unable to descend smoke-filled stairwells, were trapped on the upper floors of the building. There were no fire escapes, fire extinguishers or sprinklers. Exit doors were locked. Desperate workers made ropes out of fabric and tried to escape down the side of the building. Twenty-nine people died. Dozens more were injured.
The Ali Enterprises factory in Karachi in which 289 workers lost their lives manufactured ready to wear clothing for several major European and American clothing companies. The same is true of most of the other factories in which workers abroad are routinely burned alive. The workers in these facilities are churning out the jeans, sweaters and tops that you are buying at malls and department stores all across America.
This is the dark, nasty underbelly of globalization and outsourcing. Over the last decade something like 1300 American textile factories have closed and in excess of 400,000 jobs in the textile industry have been lost. Work, once proudly done all across the United States, has been moved offshore. And as it has moved, and the jobs have disappeared, one hundred years of law, rules and regulations designed to prevent a reoccurrence of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire have been washed away.
The companies which run these overseas factories or contract for their production are in many cases established American firms once synonymous with integrity, hard work and fairness. They are firms thoroughly familiar with the requirements imposed in the American workplace to ensure that a safe, healthy work environment is maintained. They do not care. In pursuit of the lowest cost and the cheapest product they willingly accept the employment of foreign workers under conditions no American would tolerate and which would land someone in jail were they discovered on our shores.
That American corporations have sunk to this depth is sad and despicable enough. What is perhaps even more terrible, however, is that each and every one of us has conspired in making this possible. We have watched as our neighbors have lost their jobs. We have seen the factories close and our economy rot away. We have responded by rushing to Wal-Mart and buying another cartload of cheap shirts and trousers made half a world away by workers one step above slave labor who were risking their very lives just to go to work.
In 1911, faced with the horror of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, we did the right thing. We took the hard steps to ensure that no such horror would ever again occur on U.S. soil. That we did so said something very profound about who we were and what we stood for.
It is time for us to do the right thing again. It is time for us to put the value of human life above that of cheap jeans and t-shirts. It is time for us to demand that companies selling textile goods in the United States either guarantee safe working conditions for their workers abroad or bring those jobs home where we can regulate them. It is time for us to make sure that no worker ever has to endure hell on earth again.