Bangladesh's Triangle Shirtwaist
James M. Borneman, Editor In Chief
The recent news of a fire at the Tazreen Fashions Factory in Bangladesh, which claimed the lives of
112 workers, shows how little can be learned in 100 years and how history often repeats itself. A
remarkably similar tragedy occurred in Manhattan on March 25, 1911.
On that day, 146 workers lost their lives in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Reports stated that stairwells were clogged with materials, exit doors blocked or locked, and workers simply trapped — circumstances also observed 100 years later at Tazreen.
Bangladesh might consider responding like the State of New York did by developing workplace safety rules followed by inspections aimed at improving conditions. There were other fires after the Triangle fire, as there was after the Tazreen fire. In fact, there is a report of a fire two days after the Tazreen incident in which 10 workers were injured — another situation involving locked windows and gates, and trapped workers.
Bangladesh is the number-two ready-made garment producer in the world — second only to China and chasing hard for the number-one spot. Exports of these products comprise 80 percent of the nation's total exports.
It will be interesting to see if consumers pressure retailers to insist on improvements, but for retailers, it is a double-edged sword as they focus on low costs of production. A CNN report quotes a labor advocate as saying: "On the one hand brands are telling factories to improve conditions, but on the other hand they're telling them they need lower prices. They have workers at factories making 18 cents an hour to keep prices down, but they recognize the consequences are egregious situations like this fire." Large retailers quickly distanced themselves from Tazreen, some claiming a subcontractor was involved, or that it violated the retailer's code of conduct.
One could argue that the New York fires led to increased regulation — witness Al Smith's Factory Investigating Commission and Fire Chief John Kenlon's identification of some 200 factories with conditions similar to those present at Triangle. That fire also fueled early organized labor efforts. That said, the only way to avoid organized labor and increased regulation is for factory owners to self-police, prevent the fires and have those expenses supported by their customers. If large retailers want to have lowest costs, it will take more than a code of conduct and audits to change conditions.
U.S. consumers have a renewed interest in Made in USA products. Could you imagine marketers using such a tragedy to educate U.S. consumers? How about — "Did you know that Made in Bangladesh garment you bought at (insert retailer name) could have been made in conditions in which workers making 18 cents an hour were locked in their 10-story factory, which burned to the ground, killing 112 of them?" — not likely.
Talk free trade all you want — this is about risk. Brands and retailers spend huge sums building brand value — representing performance, fashion or a certain lifestyle. The conditions present at Tazreen do nothing but undermine any brand value — they represent cheap and death — conditions well worth changing.