On March 25, 1911, a large fire engulfed a clothing factory in New York City killing 146 workers, most of whom were immigrant women. While the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire became the impetus for the reform of building, fire, and safety codes around the United States, the event has continued to leave a haunting legacy and lesson to developing nations struggling towards similar reforms. In light of recent workplace tragedies specifically, the devastating collapse of the Rana Plaza factory in Bangladesh, a group of leading human rights and labor reform scholars and activists gathered Tuesday, on the 103rd anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire to discuss the history and the potential reforms that can come out of the Fire’s legacy.
Hosted by the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College, the panel discussion entitled, “From Triangle Shirtwaist to Bangladesh: The Garment Industry, Tragedy, and Workplace Safety Reform” featured Judy Gearhart, executive director of the International Labor Rights Forum; Dan Katz, provost of the National Labor College; Alice Kesler-Harris, professor of American History at Columbia University; and Dina Siddiqi, professor of anthropology at BRAC University in Dhaka, Bangladesh. The discussion was moderated by Donna Haverty-Stacke, associate professor of history at Hunter College with opening remarks by Lawrence Moss, director of the Human Rights Program at Hunter College.
The discussion examined the troubles facing current human rights and workplace safety reform within the global garment industry. Panelists assessed the history of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in relation to the relevance the event still has in policy struggles today.
Kesler-Harris commenced the conversation by illustrating the background of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and the historical setting of New York City’s garment industry in the 1900s. This was a time of industrial growth and specifically, a transition in the garment industry. The demand for mass-manufactured clothing lead to more factories, or “sweatshops” and along with this, an influx of cheap immigrant labors to do the work. The Triangle Shirtwaist Company was one of the largest women’s blouse makers in New York City whose factory wasn’t anything out of the ordinary.
In fact, Kesler-Harris stressed that the ordinariness of the operations at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory is a similar characteristic of factories where tragic events still occur today. “The background of that fire was not unique in any way,” Kesler-Harris said. “In fact, what disturbs me when I look back at that background, is the quotidian nature of what happened in the Fire. It’s what happened at the Fire that could’ve happened anytime, anywhere, and as we know from the recent experience in Dakha in Bangladesh, keeps happening, over and over again.”
Siddiqi agreed that while most factories in developing countries such as Bangladesh are depicted in a negative light in the sense of modernity and safety, these places of industry are actually quite the contrary when examined, “You don’t have the big fires in just some sub-contracted factory, you have them in these large, modern places. At least certainly in Bangladesh, the really big fires that have caused deaths are in the factories that are quite modern and have passed inspection.”
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was quite a modern factory for its time, with about 500 employees, relatively contemporary machinery, and 10 stories of workspace. Though there were city fire and safety laws in place like other growing, newly developing cities elsewhere in 1900s America, New York politicians cared more about attracting visitors to the city rather than upholding and developing work safety laws. Political corruption resulted in the most laws being overlooked and rendered the young, immigrant, often female, factory laborers even more vulnerable in their positions and by the mundane everyday events at the factories.
“Those fire laws were routinely ignored, waived, exempted or overlooked. Such was the case in New York at the time. The political corruption not only allowed for the [Triangle Shirtwaist Factory] building to be produced without proper fire escapes but encouraged inspectors, who had just come six months before to inspect the fire hazards, to simply overlook the things they saw with a little bribe. Those things weren’t unusual then and they aren’t unusual now,” Kesler-Harris pointed out.
All the panelists agreed that the routine behavior of factory life where ignoring proper safety laws is customary, is relevant today and that consumers, policymakers and leaders should understand this as part of the bigger conceptualization of the continuous dangers facing the garment industry workforce today.
“The labor movement has an ambivalent relationship to health and safety. One of the reasons we don’t have the kind of progress and the growth in labor movement and social movements today in general, has to do with the absence of those transformative visions from the 1900s.”
Katz spoke about the social movement and political reforms that resulted from the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. He described that the aftereffects of the Fire provided radical politicians, work labor unionists, and feminists with a united, political cause that successfully advanced progressive legislation and a transformative vision for policy change. “The aftermath of the Fire is a litany of successes in reform politics but I think it is just as much a story about radical and transformative politics” Katz stated. “Looking at the 20th century and the aftermath of the Fire, there really is a mixed legacy. All that we take for granted in terms of what are good practices for fire safety and what we notice when that doesn’t exist, does come from the effect of the activism in response to the Fire. This is a moment in time in which we want to interrogate over and over again. How did it happen? Why did it happen?”
Siddiqi also added that the perspective in which we think about the results from the events in Bangladesh compared to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire can also be described with different expectations due to the lack of current social and political transformative visions. “We’re talking within a much narrower landscape of possibilities and of ideas of what is good and what is right and what is just and what workers deserve and what they don’t deserve. Time-wise there are many differences.”
Gearhart added that the Fire is a way to reflect and think about solutions for the future. “We have to remember this event,” she said. Gearheart added that if we can learn so much from the aftermath effect of this past tragedy, we should be able to prevent future dangers like those happening in the factories of Bangladesh. “I hope we’re at that next, new moment [of reform],” she said of the social movement resulting from the recent events in Bangladesh. She reiterated that the conditions between the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory and the factories in Bangladesh factories mirror each other and provide for an interesting comparison. As the fastest growing apparel export industry in the world, second to China, Bangladesh has grown so quickly in this area with so little regulation. The corruption between Bangladeshi factory owners and government officials is very commonplace.
As a witness to the event at Rana Plaza, Gearhart stated, “The causes behind what’s been going on in Bangladesh are not just the locked doors, it’s also that the workers have no voice.”
Gearhart noted that solutions regarding conditions in Bangladesh are reliant on sound legal reform and transparent corporate accountability. These two things will protect workers’ rights as well as set a clear foundation for the accountability of global brands. Gearhart stressed, we need to continue the process of giving disregarded workers a voice.
The discussion concluded that solutions in this sphere of labor reform are not easy to predict. Yet with more discussion and awareness, progressive change is in the foreseeable future.
“The apparel industry has sought to distance themselves from direct responsibility for the workers making the products and we need to stop that. We need to mobilize consumers, we need to start finding a way to make more transparent what brands are doing vis-à-vis their workers. That’s a big statement but if we don’t gain that accountability and public transparency, and if we don’t turn to legal reform and making labor law and international labor laws into effect then I don’t think we can stop this.”
At the most, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire is a historical legacy of a tragic event that will continue to be remembered and used as an example for workplace safety reform. Remembering this event is important in progressing reform and how we think about and prevent similar tragedies from happening globally.
Watch a recording of the event online here.