Smithson: Bangladesh fire revives century-old memories

A recent fire in a garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, is a grim indicator of how little some countries have done to protect employees.

A recent fire in a garment factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh, provided a reminder of a strikingly similar tragedy in New York City just over 100 years ago.

It also was a grim indicator of how far some, but not all, countries have come in protecting employees in the workplace.

The Tazreen Fashions Ltd. factory in Dhaka made clothes for a number of well-known North American retailers. It occupied a nine-storey building and employed over 1,000 low-wage workers.

More than110 bodies were recovered after a fire ripped through the factory, causing panicked workers to leap from high windows in an attempt to escape.

Most of the workers were women, most earned less than $40 per month.

Bangladesh is a global centre for clothes manufacturing due to its cheap labour, with many popular brands using huge factories to produce items for export to western markets. Workplace safety standards can be pathetically low (or non-existent).

The Tazreen factory was widely reported to have been supplying clothing to Walmart and Disney among other large western companies.

This disaster comes on the heels of a recent fire in a Pakistan garment factory which killed 289 workers and injured 110 more.

As for the Tazreen fire, some reports quoted survivors as saying that doors were locked and that managers prevented them from leaving the building.

The company’s owner initially denied his workplace was unsafe. A Bangladesh fire official later disclosed that the garment factory had lost its fire safety certification months earlier due to a lack of proper safety arrangements.

There were, apparently, no emergency fire exits whatsoever.

The parallels to New York’s 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire are striking.

On a Saturday afternoon in August 1911 in New York City, hundreds of female garment workers prepared to head home at the end of their long workday—146 of them would not make it out of the workplace alive.

The Triangle Shirtwaist Company was located in the top three floors of a 10-storey building near New York’s Washington Square. Triangle produced women’s blouses (which, at the time, were referred to as “shirtwaists” or “waists”).

Many of the garment workers were teenagers (as young as 14), immigrant females earning less than $400 per year. They worked a 60 to 70 hours a week with shifts as long as 14 hours per day.

The conditions in the Triangle factory have been described as typical of the time. Regulation of workplace safety was virtually non-existent and the Triangle factory was an example of the pathetic conditions experienced by workers in the early 20th century.

One record of the events stated that “flammable textiles were stored throughout the factory, scraps of fabric littered the floors, patterns and designs on sheets of tissue paper hung above the tables, the …cutters sometimes smoked, illumination was provided by open gas lighting, and there were only a few buckets of water” available in case of fire.

Some of the factory exits were apparently locked to protect against employee theft.

Other doors only opened inwards, rendering them useless in the face of a stampede of panicked employees. A rickety fire escape would prove to be ineffective for its intended purpose.

The fire began on the 8th floor of the building. Workers on the 8th and 10th floors mostly escaped to safety.

For the 9th floor workers, there would be a much more terrible outcome.

By all accounts, the deadly fire spread swiftly.  The workers’ escape was prevented by a stairwell engulfed in smoke and flame, by a locked exit, a disabled elevator and by the collapse of the only fire escape.

Many died by leaping down the elevator shaft. Bodies were later found piled against doors and huddled together in side rooms. For the rest, the 9th floor windows offered the only hope of escape.

Firefighters’ hoses and ladders, however, did not reach beyond the 7th floor and blankets and nets, held by rescuers on the ground to catch women who leaped to safety, collapsed under the force.

Horrified spectators watched as dozens of desperate young women flung themselves out of the windows rather than let the fire capture them.

New York City’s sidewalks received 62 young women that day.

The Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire stood for 90 years as New York City’s worst example of mass workplace fatalities. It was only eclipsed by the terrible events of Sept. 11, 2001. The workers’ deaths in the Triangle fire served to galvanize support for garment workers unions which, to that point, had enjoyed only moderate success.

Unions such as the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union and the Womens’ Trade Union pressed for comprehensive safety and workers’ compensation laws. The cries of support for improvement of unsafe working conditions were widespread.  New York’s governor appointed an investigative commission, resulting in the passage of new factory safety legislation.

The Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire truly was a seminal moment in the history of American workplace safety and labour relations.

Let’s all hope the Tazreen fire in Bangladesh serves the same purpose in that country.

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