As we rush around for last-minute holiday shopping, we shouldn’t forget the sacrifices made by workers who make the products we buy. Just last week, young garment workers in Ashulia, Bangladesh jumped from windows on the 10th and 11th floors when a fire overtook the Ha-Meem factory. At least 25 workers were killed on the job, where they were sewing clothes for familiar brand names and stores like the Gap, Wrangler, JC Penny, Sears, Target and Abercrombie and Fitch.
As reported in the press, workers were forced to jump because the gates at the staircase and entrance were locked.
This horrible story reminds me of a painful moment in American history, when 146 garment workers died in a New York City garment factory inferno at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory (which is presently the Brown Building on the NYU campus in Greenwich Village, New York City), in 1911. Just like their Bangladeshi counterparts, the garment workers back then could not escape due to locked exits.
This coming March marks the 100th anniversary of this disaster, one of the deadliest industrial fires in US history. The tragedy shocked the nation and the world, galvanizing a movement for social change and inspiring unprecedented reforms that transformed American working life. But, sadly, as much as things have changed, there is still much work to be done.
The Triangle factory fire highlighted the plight of vulnerable sweatshop workers in a rapidly industrializing era. The mostly immigrant workers, some no older than 15, worked long hours for low wages in unsanitary and dangerous conditions. They lived in grinding poverty, which was typical since there were almost no state or federal regulations on minimum wage, child labor, health and safety or pensions.
After the fire, protestors from across the political spectrum demanded action to safeguard the vulnerable and oppressed, creating a consensus for reform that would endure through the New Deal and beyond. These efforts resulted in comprehensive national legislation that considerably raised standards in compensation and workplace conditions. Eventually, garment workers unionized, with the support of the public who saw workers’ rights as integral to the American dream, not anathema to it. The workers I have the privilege of representing today go to work every day with the legacy of the Triangle workers providing the wind on their backs, knowing that they are protected thanks to the heroism of these brave women.
Sadly, though, workers are still being harmed and killed in workplaces not only in Bangladesh, but here at home. Even worse, calls for less regulation continue to put workers in industries like mining, industrial launderers and textiles, in jeopardy.
Just last spring 29 workers died in an underground mine in Montcoal, West Virginia, operated by Massey Energy, the worst US mining disaster in 40 years. Unfortunately, despite an unprecedented response by the US Labor Department, the Congress has yet to act. A recent party-line vote engineered by Republicans in Congress saw Congress block the majority Democrats’ Robert C. Byrd Mine Safety Protection, which would have put stronger enforcement mechanisms in place to protect US miners and stop rogue employers like Massey.
Another example is Sodexo, a giant food service provider, which has been cited for numerous health and safety violations. OSHA recently found that Sodexo does not comply with their standards to protect workers from infectious diseases—a critical issue in factory-sized laundries handling thousands of pounds of contaminated, soiled linen from hospitals. OSHA also cited Sodexo for failing to provide service workers with even the basic protection like an eyewash station near to sites where workers must handle industrial-strength acids that could cause blindness if splashed into their eyes.
And of course the BP oil disaster will go down in history for its immense harm overall.
But workers and our allies are fighting back.
In Bangladesh today, where the garment and textile industry is now that nation’s largest sectoral industry, workers have recently begun protesting for a higher minimum wage and improved industry standards. I can only hope that the US will join in their efforts, and push for stronger global standards for workers, so that labor rights and workers’ safety rules are enforced domestically and globally no matter where the work is being done.
In this hemisphere, unions joined by allies like the United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) and the labor-supported Workers’ rights Consortium have had successes. When the University of Wisconsin’s football team plays in this year’s Rose Bowl, the team won’t be outfitted in Nike. Student pressure made the University of Wisconsin-Madison cancel its sports apparel contract with Nike last spring due to labor violations in Nike’s Honduran plants.
Meanwhile, Sweatfree Communities (part of the International Labor Rights Forum) has been able to get municipalities across the country to join a Sweatfree Procurement Consortium and sign Sweatfree Procurement Ordinances. The policy requires vendors to disclose the manufacturing locations for their entire supply chain, to adhere to a code of conduct, to submit to independent oversight. They are also leading a campaign to build global support for changes for Bangladeshi workers. So, in between sending your last minute holiday greetings, take some time to write to the Prime Minister of Bangladesh, and the CEO’s of Wal-Mart, JC Penney and Sears. Go to sweatfree.org. Click under the Act Now section and call for justice for workers in Bangladesh.
When we gather together to celebrate and mark this holiday season, let’s light a candle for those who died to make this world a safer place for all of us. But, let’s keep the flame burning by redoubling our own efforts to empower workers here at home and across the globe.
Many events will mark the upcoming 100th anniversary of the Triangle fire. The Remember the Triangle Fire Coalition has a list of all of the events that will be happening. Check out their website, Facebook page and twitter feed for more information.