Last Friday marked the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. factory fire in New York City. This was an apparel factory — the same kind of place people have called a sweatshop for a long time.
Not only were workers subjected to near slave wages and painfully long working hours, but basic safety measures were not taken to ensure people’s well-being while they worked.
When a fire broke out, the workers were trapped inside — the factory owners routinely locked the doors to the fire escape to maintain a separation from the outside world in order to keep people working long hard hours. The building was also designed precariously, and flammable materials were routinely allowed to build up to dangerous levels.
Some died in the fire, while others jumped from the top of the building to avoid burning to death. The disaster claimed 146 lives.
The fire was a terrible accident, but the systemic oppression was the deeper problem and is the main issue that turned the accident into a tragedy. The horrible working conditions were symptoms of a drive to squeeze as much profit out of a business at the cost of exploiting the most vulnerable people involved.
The tragedy served as a catalyst for workers’ rights and the labor movement, and in the next decade the US saw the largest unified mobilization of workers of any point in the country’s history.
The fruit of this movement came in the form of many basic rights almost all US workers benefit from today, such as child labor laws, a minimum wage, the concept of a 40-hour work week, overtime and workplace safety laws.
This movement also brought higher pay, pension plans, employer-provided health insurance and many other benefits.
Unfortunately, the same drive to maximize profits at all cost that lead to the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. fire has driven companies to move factories off US soil and exploit people overseas. In fact, last December there was a similar fire in a Bangladeshi factory that manufactured clothes for US companies. The tragedy killed 25 and injured over 100.
This hurts our workers too, because the good jobs they fought for in this country have been turned into low-cost exploitation in other countries.
In the early 1900s, most of the clothing in the US was made in sweatshops, and in the early 2000s that situation remains the same. However, we also still have the ability to change the situation. Many workers around the world are fighting to stop sweatshop conditions, and people here and abroad can be a part of the solution.
It’s time to look at and follow the amazing work that has been done to bring about the rights that we enjoy here — for both the good of the world and ourselves.
As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”