March and April are very important months in the history of the garment industry. It was within these months that two of the worst ever garment industry incidents occurred, resulting in a massive (and completely preventable) loss of life. And the strange thing is, they happened over a hundred years apart and in different parts of the world. But sadly, many of the tragic circumstances were similar.
THE TRIANGLE WAISTSHIRT COMPANY: AMERICA
March 25th marked the 105th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company factory fire, infamous for being one of the worst workplace incidents in the history of America. On this day, 145 people periled in the New York City sweatshop, the majority of whom were women and girls who had recently immigrated from Europe. Nearly half of the casualties were teenagers. This day would bring about great reforms within the industry to prevent such a tragedy from ever occurring again (in America at least).
The exact cause of the fire was a lit cigarette butt or match, which was disposed of in a rubbish bin full of material off-cuts. A manager tried to extinguish the fire, which turned out to be impossible because the hose had rotted and the valve was rusted shut. Fuelled by garments hanging above the workspaces and fabric cuttings that covered the floor, the situation quickly turned deadly, with the flames tearing through the building, destroying everything in their path. It burned itself out within only 18 minutes.
There were 600 workers present in the factory that day and it is a miracle that any of them escaped with their lives. All the odds were against them. The sweatshop was located on the top three floors of the ten story building, with the fire starting on the eighth floor. There was only one working elevator on the floor, which at full capacity could only hold a grand total of 12 people. After only four trips, the flames destroyed it. People were even desperate enough to jump down the shaft to escape the approaching flames.
Others were rushing to take the stairs, which were no better. A fire escape crashed almost 30 metres to the ground because it couldn’t support the weight of the workers trying to flee to safety. The two other stairways also turned out to be useless. One of the doors only opened inwardly, while the other was locked. The doors would be purposely locked to prevent the theft of materials. These workers had literally been locked inside their workplace and left to burn.
Escaping out of the windows was also not an option. Although the firefighters were there trying to help, their efforts were unsuccessful because the ladders and hoses were not tall enough to reach the eighth floor windows. Rather than burn alive, people jumped from the windows to their death.
There were some workers on the floors above were luckier than those on the eighth floor. Those that managed to escape, did so by climbing onto the roof and over to neighbouring buildings. This also included the owners of the sweatshop, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris.
Although the owners were charged with manslaughter, they ended up getting away scot-free and suffered no consequences. After a three week trial that focused on whether or not the men knew that the door to the stairwell was locked, the jury came back after less than two hours of deliberation and found that the evidence was insufficient to charge them. They were acquitted and nobody was held responsible for the lives that were lost that day.
However, something good did come out of this awful tragedy. After the fire, there was a huge amount of pressure on the government from activists who demanded that something be done to ensure the safety of factory workers and prevent such a disaster from ever happening again. Within three months of the incident, the New York Mayor created the Factory Investigating Commission. This ensured that factories were inspected (in many industries, not just the garment industry) to ensure things such as: the building was fire safe, the conditions of the workers were safe, there was no risk of disease, and that the rights of the workers were being respected. And they just kept rolling with it. A State Department of Labour was established later on to enforce the all new state labour laws that had been introduced. Pretty amazing what sort of change people can influence!
RANA PLAZA COLLAPSE: BANGLADESH
Unfortunately, the industry has only gotten worse since the Triangle Fire. On April 24, 2013, the world was horrified when a garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing 1,134 people and seriously injuring thousands more. The building, Rana Plaza (named after its owner Sohel Rana) was eight stories high and was comprised of five sweatshops. Thanks to corruption among his political connections, Rana was able to illegally extend the building by an extra three stories without a permit. This was ignored by authorities.
As you can imagine, the building process wasn’t exactly by the book either. Rana’s bribes bought him the right to ignore building laws and to use whatever cheap, poor quality materials he could scrounge up. The negligence spreads right up to government authorities.
But authorities finally stepped in the day before the collapse, asking the owners to cease operations until the safety of the building was confirmed, due to giant cracks that had appeared in the walls. And as we all now know, the owners disregarded this demand. On the day of the collapse, the workers were actually refusing to enter the building. They knew they would be in danger and feared losing their lives. However, the owner of the building ignored their pleas. On top of that, gang members were hired to beat the workers and force them into the building, while managers told them that they wouldn’t be getting paid for the month if they didn’t go in. They were frightened and had no choice. They had to get back in there and sew the clothing for the worldwide brands. They entered the doomed building at 8 am. At 8:45 the building came crashing down. It took all of 90 seconds to destroy thousands of lives forever.
A disaster of this magnitude had never before been seen within the garment industry. These jobs were the livelihood of the workers and their families. Compensation would need to be provided to families of the victims and also the survivors, some of whom were so badly injured, they wouldn’t ever work again.
In response to this, a fund called the Rana Plaza Arrangement was set up a couple of months after the collapse, in order to collect money intended to be paid out in compensation. The arrangement collected money from anyone who was willing to donate, but was mainly focused on getting the 29 global brands who had their garments manufactured at Rana Plaza at the time of the collapse to donate a significant sum. It took almost two years (there were some reluctant brands), but the goal of $30 million dollars was finally reached in June 2015.
Another effect of the Rana Plaza collapse was the development of the Bangladesh Fire and Safety Accord. Global brands, retailers and trade unions sign onto the Accord and agree to work together in order to develop a safe working environment for garment workers in Bangladesh. Company-led safety inspections were clearly not cutting it in Bangladesh, so the Accord goes beyond that. Inspections are now overseen by other groups, such as the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and Bangladeshi Unions. Brands who have signed the Accord now take more responsibility for the safety and the rights of the workers who are making their clothes.
The victims and their families are unlikely to get peace any time soon. Police only filed murder charges last June, two years after the collapse. The court has just accepted these charges in December. Sohel Rana and 40 other people were arrested on murder charges. He is sitting in jail, while 16 others are out on bail and 24 of the accused have fled the country. They face a maximum sentence of the death penalty, if convicted.
But the big question is, who is actually responsible for this disaster? A lot of finger pointing has been going on since the collapse, with nobody wanting to take responsibility. But really, everyone shares the blame and the responsibility for what has happened here. It would be easy to just blame the owner of the building and the others who have been arrested. I mean, it was their fault that the building was poorly constructed and done so without any permits, right? Then the brands are next in line. They should be thoroughly inspecting these factories and know under what conditions their products are made, rather than acting clueless or trying to deny it. They should care about more than just profit. But we as consumers are also to blame. We want our cheap clothes and we want them now, no matter what the consequences.
So what have we learnt in 100 years? Not a lot it seems. Dangerous sweatshops still exist, the difference is they now exist (primarily) in different countries to where the clothing will be consumed. Fires still regularly break out due to the unsafe conditions, resulting in loss of life and injuries. People are still being forced to work in very unsafe environments. In summary- They are the same dangers, the same methods of production, the same women and girls being taken advantage of.
The world cannot go on like this. Let’s hope that it doesn’t take another 100 years or even more senseless loss of life before something actually changes.