Almost exactly 100 years ago, one of the worst industrial disasters in American history took place. 146 low-wage workers, mostly immigrant women, lost their lives at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City. Most had jumped to their own deaths as a result of blocked and locked exits (a common practice at the time, ostensibly to prevent petty theft and workers leaving early).
A virtually identical fire in Bangladesh claimed between 29 and 100 lives (a final death toll has not been confirmed) and injured hundreds more on December 14th. It also claimed the lives of poor people, mostly women, working for staggeringly low wages. Early reports indicate the carnage is also a result of locked fire exits in a multi-storey complex– forcing anguished, trapped people to leap to their own deaths.
They were making clothing for the largest US clothing company, The Gap, which also owns such popular brands as Old Navy and Banana Republic. This time, however, it wasn’t really considered news.
If anything good came out of the Triangle Fire, it was how quickly public outrage and commentary mobilized the creation of new unions and safety regulations for so-called “sweatshops” in the US. But the people who make clothing for the US market now will not receive anything like this level of interest as the American press has all but ignored this event and others like it in the past year.
In other words, where is the outrage?
Unlike our dutiful corporate media, the press in the UK has at least informed its citizens about the disaster and the issues around it. Earlier in the same month, 4 protesters were killed when police opened fire on a group trying to ensure that the new minimum wage (Aprox. $45 dollars US per month) would actually be paid to them instead of the previous $27.00.
What did the employees of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company make? Roughly the same wages.
Not adjusted for inflation, the SAME $45 per month, 100 years ago. Even factoring in the differences in the economies, the Triangle workers were far better off. The people who make our clothing in Bangladesh earn so little they often have trouble getting enough caloric intake to keep working without passing out from exhaustion.
The factory is owned by this man, AK Azad, CEO of the Hameem Group (getting some calories from his employees at this party):
Their FaceBook page remains unsullied by comments from fed-up Americans (or anyone else, for that matter), save mine. Mr. Azad is also head of the Bangladesh Chamber of Commerce. Imagine the scandal if this was an American factory and the owner was head of our US Chamber of Commerce.
But it IS still essentially an American factory, making clothing strictly for the American market. It is a factory for The Gap, America’s largest clothing manufacturer. With virtually no commentary stateside, The Gap quietly issued a statement and a joint letter (with JC Penny and Van Heusen) urging the Hameem Group to do better.
If there is any response to this letter, I doubt we will hear about it in the mainstream press. Mr. Azad’s place in the global economy is secure, his status unthreatened as a champion of the expanding global place of Bangladesh as a source for American clothing manufacture.
He still has his job, and The Gap suffers no apparent losses from the preventable deaths of dozens of the poorest-paid, most vulnerable people on the planet.
Americans do care about these issues, and famously rallied around the same causes after Kathy Lee Gifford made the case for chage in the 90’s. Even more recently, Nike sports equipment was banned from The University of Wisconsin over student revulsion over their labor practices in Latin America. But it is difficult to generate outrage when very little of the information gets to American consumers. Even this article in The New York Times, published the day after the disaster, remains unupdated as to the US companies involved.
And there are no editorials. Yet. Hopefully this will change.