Outsourcing Tragedy: On the 100th Anniversary of Triangle Shirtwaist, Workers Are Still Dying in Garment Factory Fires

One hundred years ago today, a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in lower Manhattan. After locked doors made flight impossible, many workers leapt to their deaths to escape the flames. One hundred and forty-six people died, in a tragedy that helped catalyze a national movement for workplace reform.

Unfortunately, we do not need to look back a hundred years to contemplate the horror of garment workers falling from the high floors of a burning factory. The last such nightmare befell workers barely 100 days ago, on December 14, when thirty workers were killed and more than a hundred injured at a factory producing for Kohl's, JC Penney, Target, Wrangler, Phillips-Van Heusen, Oshkosh, Gap and others.

The sad irony on this centennial of the Triangle tragedy is that the abusive conditions, poverty wages and shoddy garment industry safety practices that unions and social reformers decried in 1911 have not been eliminated. They have been outsourced.

Faced with rising wages, strong unions and enforceable safety regulations in the United States, clothing brands and retailers have moved virtually all of their production overseas. Today, America's dresses, jeans and t-shirts are produced in the contract factories of the developing world, where lax regulation, microscopic wages, and the near total absence of unions and collective bargaining ensure the cheap and flexible production the industry craves.

The similarities between the fire at Triangle Shirtwaist and the recent disaster are eerie and instructive. As at Triangle, the December fire at That's It Sportswear, a large garment production facility in Bangladesh, swept rapidly through the ninth floor of the building. Survivors reported that locked doors impeded workers' escape. Many had no choice but to try to climb down ropes made of pieces of clothing hastily tied together. Some fell from the makeshift ropes; others, unable to reach the ropes, jumped to their demise.

This conflagration was only the most recent in a long series of mass fatalities in Bangladesh's burgeoning apparel sector. Nine months earlier, another contract factory, this one making clothes for H&M, caught fire. Twenty-one workers died, their exit reportedly blocked by padlocked doors.

It is no mystery why companies have been flocking to Bangladesh, which is now the world's fourth largest garment exporter. The apparel manufacturers of 1911 Manhattan did not waste time and money on niceties like workplace safety or tolerate the inconvenience of labor unions and neither do their modern day counterparts in Bangladesh. The country's weak safety protections are part of a rock-bottom cost structure that features wages of 20 cents an hour and implacable hostility to unions.

Brands and retailers have paid lip service to the need for reform in Bangladesh's factories, especially since a building collapse in 2005 that killed 64 workers, but the disasters keep happening and the orders for cheap clothes keep pouring in. Walmart alone now buys more than $1 billion worth of garments a year from Bangladesh.

This is the contradiction at the heart of the contemporary apparel industry: the brands and retailers say they want to eliminate sweatshop conditions, but demand prices from their contractors so low that the only way they can stay in business is to keep abusing their workers.

When the Bangladeshi labor movement called last year for a minimum wage of 35 cents an hour, the factory owners insisted, plausibly, that the brands and retailers would never accept the resulting price increases. Factory owners in Cambodia, where 200,000 workers recently struck for a minimum wage of 40 cents an hour, made the same claim, as have factory owners in India, another country where garment workers have died in multiple factory fires over the last year. Apparel brands now even complain that China is too expensive.

Global outsourcing has enabled apparel companies to escape the regulatory strictures imposed though half a century of labor reform in the US. At the same time, the companies have largely succeeded in evading moral accountability for the abuses committed by their overseas factories, even as they benefit from the low prices those factories provide. Protecting workers requires new mechanisms for holding corporations accountable.

One hopeful sign has been efforts of universities, spurred by student activists, to impose labor rights standards on their apparel industry partners: makers of university logo sweatshirts and t-shirts, like those selling briskly thanks to"March Madness." Students and universities have achieved remarkable labor rights breakthroughs involving workers producing overseas for Nike and Russell Athletic and have also helped facilitate the opening of a model garment factory in the Dominican Republic where workers have a living wage and union representation.

Meanwhile, labor rights organizations have called on the companies that do business with That's It Sportswear to accept an aggressive and independent fire safety inspection program at hundreds of their supplier factories in Bangladesh. Many of the companies have promised to do so; time will tell if they fulfill that pledge.

Broader accountability efforts along these lines are essential to achieving a new round of apparel industry reform that can finally protect the people who make our clothes from workplace horrors that should have been stamped out a century ago.

Scott Nova is Executive Director of the Worker Rights Consortium, a labor rights watchdog, with over 175 affiliated universities and colleges.