Two factory owners used cheap labor and a growing market for women’s blouses to make their fortune. More than 500 employees, some as young as 14, labored nine hours a day, five days a week, and seven hours on Saturday making blouses. A fire broke out, but fire escapes were unusable, and stairwells and exits were kept locked. Dozens of workers, mainly girls and women, jumped from the 10-story building to their death. So many bodies rained down on the pavement that fire engines had trouble getting past the carnage to extinguish the flames. The owners were acquitted of all charges.
A market driven only by economic consider-ations is unlikely to make safety a priority over efficiency until society forces it to.
It reads like a headline from Bangladesh, where more than 700 women and girls died in the collapse of a building housing clothing factories last month. Yet it is actually an account of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City. Killing 146 people, it was one of the worst industrial accidents in American history.
The disaster led to a series of reforms in the government regulation of factories and working conditions, prompted the rise of the garment workers union, and helped propel the career of Al Smith, the first Catholic candidate for president, who gained attention for his work on behalf of labor rights and safety.
|Photo by Ragne Kabanova. Shutterstock
There are several lessons to draw from this historic disaster when looking at the recent tragic events in Bangladesh. The first is that, despite the heated rhetoric we often hear today, we live in an infinitely safer world because of government regulations and a system of accountability through the courts. While over-regulation is not without high costs, it is important to remember that a market driven only by economic considerations is unlikely to make safety a priority over efficiency until society forces it to.
In situations of profound exploitation such as in New York in 1911 or Bangladesh in 2013, those most impacted by such tragedies often are the weakest. In New York, it was newly arrived Jewish and Italian immigrants. In Bangladesh, it’s the wave of new urban-dwellers fleeing an impoverished countryside. Too often, in both Bangladesh and in New York, corruption also plays a part: weak or venal officials charged with protection of the citizenry look the other way.
Many of the largest clothing importers in the United States, such as Wal-Mart and Target, benefit from cheap labor in Bangladesh and other parts of Asia, which in turn benefits all of buying clothes priced so low that they have become disposable. But these low prices come at a cost.
Disney has announced it is pulling out of Bangladesh, and other companies are considering similar action. For the 2.5 million women who depend on this industry for their livelihood, this would be compounding the disaster. And it is a cowardly act on the part of such companies who seek fewer headlines rather than the well-being of their workers. It would be far better if companies like Wal-Mart, Disney and United Colors of Benetton, whose clothes were found in the rubble of the Bangladesh factory, pressed for better working conditions and put their vaunted corporate muscle where their profits are.
Pope Francis, who often challenges the treatment of the marginalized and voiceless, used his installation Mass March 19 to exhort his listeners to be “protectors” and to “care for our brothers and sisters.”
Be it a factory collapse in Bangladesh, or explosions in a Texas fertilizer plant or a West Virginia coal mine, we’re reminded of what happens when vigilance is relaxed or greed is unshackled.
Editorial Board: Greg Erlandson, publisher; Msgr. Owen F. Campion, associate publisher; Beth McNamara, editorial director; Gretchen R. Crowe, editor; Sarah Hayes, executive editor