The Bangladesh Factory Fires Could, and Must, Be Prevented

Triangle Fire

IT WAS ONLY eight days after the March 25, 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, and Rose Schneiderman was in no mood for playing nice. Addressing her (mostly) middle-class audience of Women’s Trade Union League supporters, she said:

I would be a traitor to these poor burned bodies if I came here to talk good fellowship. We have tried you good people of the public and we have found you wanting. The old Inquisition had its rack and its thumbscrews and its instruments of torture with iron teeth. We know what these things are today; the iron teeth are our necessities, the thumbscrews are the high-powered and swift machinery close to which we must work, and the rack is here in the firetrap structures that will destroy us the minute they catch on fire.

These vivid images of New York’s 146 burned bodies and of torture come at an especially raw moment, having only some days ago encountered once more the savage mindlessness of guerilla warfare waged against the unsuspecting public of a modern city. A vast sum of resources has been and will continue to be deployed against terror in all forms — with the exception of industrial terror, the long knowable and known likelihood that captive factory workers will suffer a preventable and most brutal form of death by suffocation and immolation.

It happens that there is a bakery, in my Toronto Bloor West Village neighbourhood, named “Bread and Roses” — a phrase which brings to my mind not only Schneiderman (“The worker must have bread, but she must have roses, too”) but also the songs and poetry and struggles of industrial workers in general. On the topic of grinding labour, Rose Schneiderman was expert, and there is nothing in the serial Bangladesh fires of the past decade with which she did not herself contend one century ago: the overcrowding of the factory, the shoddy condition of buildings, the absence of proper fire escapes, the locking of doors and denials of work breaks, the failure to provide fire safety training and evacuation plans, and the evasion of nonetheless weak labour and industrial regulations.

One hundred years later, the Bangladesh textile factory fires possess the depressing and outrageous power of invoking 1911 and the intersection of Washington Place and Greene Street — right down to the details of the Ashulia industrial area where, between 2006 and 2012, a number of these conflagrations have occurred. (I mention Ashulia to invoke the Asch Building of the New York fire.) There was a time, let’s remember, when slave-wage labour and young women jumping to their deaths from the ninth floor windows of a burning factory were facts of our local economy.

As if to compound the injury with an insult, the court assigned to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory owners, Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, a fine of seventy-five dollars per deceased victim. (The insurance company paid out four hundred dollars per casualty, a cool profit to Blanck and Harris of three hundred and twenty-five dollars per capita.) The Ha-Meem Group, which owned the Ashulia Bangladesh textile factory, was ordered to pay the equivalent of 1,370 US dollars to each family of the deceased, an amount which when adjusted for inflation is less than seventy-five 1911 US dollars. The even more deadly November 2012 Ashulia fire killed over 110 and injured 150, resulting in fines per victim of 100,000 Bangladeshi taka ($1,200 US).

Of course the industrial-capitalist appeal of a destination like Bangladesh is this very ability to reverse the circuit of one’s clock, enjoying once again the fat of days before organized labour and civil society put teeth into the talk of fair dealing. Bangladesh’s textile workers are among the lowest-paid in the world, their monthly minimum wage at the time of the 2010 Ashulia fire being $23, or 22 cents per hour. Three million Bangladeshi textile workers produce over $10 billion in goods annually, and often under health-destroying conditions, sold at high mark-ups over the past ten years by Wal-Mart, H&M, Zara, Carrefour, Gap, Metro, JCPenney, Marks & Spencer, Loblaw’s, Kohl’s, Levi Strauss and Tommy Hilfiger. Do with this information as you see fit, perhaps mindful of the idea that if one dollar represents a vote, there are billions to be cast each year — including by you and me.

Meanwhile in Bangladesh the predictable reports of unethical and unsafe industrial practices will be filed to, and ignored by, local authorities. Rose Schneiderman was correct that the only way workers can save themselves is through strong working-class and civil-society movements, and such have indeed been emerging in that country. The assurances of governments and employers will not make much of a difference. But we can and should remember the Triangle fire and what came afterward, deploying our economic votes against any fact or arrangement which tends toward reproducing it.

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