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Factory safety 100 years after the Triangle Shirtwaist tragedy

Issues Health Safety & Environment

On March 25, 1911, a fire engulfed the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York City, claiming the lives of 146 workers – mostly immigrant women. One hundred years later, the safety of workers in many factories around the world is still at risk.

A recent report on The World examines the impact of the tragedy on labor in the U.S. and abroad. From the article:

Garment jobs have been shifting to lower-cost operations in Mexico, the Caribbean, and Asia for decades, as have dangerous working conditions. “Effectively what we have done is exported our sweatshops and exported our factory fires,” said Robert Ross at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. And it’s as if the 1911 conditions had been lifted up by an evil hand and dropped into Bangladesh.”

According to the Bangladeshi government’s Fire Service and Civil Defense Department, 414 garment workers were killed in at least 213 factory fires between the years 2006 and 2009. Last year, 191 people were killed in Bangladesh in a reported 20 incidents, according to Ross’ research. Last December, a fire killed at least 25 people in a garment factory there.

“And the pattern is disturbingly uniform,” said Ross. “The shops are often in high-rise buildings, just like the Triangle. The pattern is that an electrical fire starts, and then without adequate, or any fire escapes, without sprinkler systems, the workers surge to get out. And in factory after factory, the newspapers report locked gates and locked doors. It’s a horrific duplication of what we earlier experienced.”

The question is: Why does this keep happening? Labor laws exist, both international and country-specific rules. But HeeWon Brindle-Khym, with the Fair Labor Association in New York City, said laws are often ignored in places like Bangladesh and China.

“It’s cheaper for many factory owners to not abide by the law because it costs them money,” said Brindle-Khym. “In terms of the enforcement of the law, there’s just aren’t enough inspectors to go to each and every factory in China to ensure that labor rights are being enforced.”

The centennial of the Triangle fire is a sobering reminder that much work remains to be done in manufacturing countries across the globe to ensure that tragedies like Triangle Shirtwaist truly become a thing of the past. A powerful illustration of this is the frequency of devastating factory fires in Bangladeshi factories, which strongly indicates that there are systemic issues requiring immediate attention; several FLA company members are collaborating with civil society organizations and others in that country – along with the government – to agree upon and enforce policies that will prevent factory fires, improve fire safety procedures, and provide some compensation to victims and their families.

FLA brings stakeholders together to solve problems, which has proven to be an effective way to ensure safe and sustainable factories. Through this collaboration, FLA company members will continue to make progress in the U.S., Bangladesh, and other countries around the world, supporting the factories in their supply chains as they make necessary improvements to ensure workers’ safety.

Member companies enforce the FLA Workplace Code of Conduct in their supply chain, which outlines several health and safety requirements in its benchmarks, and have committed to establishing internal systems for monitoring workplace conditions and maintaining Code standards, and to public reporting on the assessments of their factories.

Last year, FLA-accredited monitors conducted 149 unannounced factory visits in some 23 countries. FLA members are making a difference, but it will take the commitment of every member of the global supply chain to ensure lasting change and prevent another disaster like the Triangle factory fire.

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