When news of the Rana Plaza Factory collapse in Bangladesh broke in April 2013 we were all left speechless. Our privileged bubble of constant consumption at rock bottom prices had burst, and no longer could we turn a blind eye to the true cost of how our cheap clothes were made. The Rana Plaza factory collapse drove many fashion professionals to enter the now growing ethical fashion movement, and a lot of progress has been made as a result. What many are not aware of however, is that this has happened before, in NYC. Here’s how history can teach us what lies ahead for fashion in the wake of Rana Plaza, spoiler alert, it’s good news.
It was a brisk day in March of 1911 in New York City when suddenly thick black smoke started billowing out of a building in downtown Manhattan. It was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Washington Square Park and it was on fire. In 18 minutes, the fire ultimately killed 123 women and 23 men, mainly Italian and Jewish immigrants from the ages of 16 to 23, and the saddest part was the tragedy could have been avoided. Most of the deaths were due to people being trapped in the building as all the stairways were locked, a common management practice at the time to prevent unauthorized breaks or theft. The people who were trapped ultimately died by fire, smoke, or jumping to try and escape via elevator shaft or window. It was horrifically tragic.
Tragedy Uncovers Corruption
Whether it’s from outsiders beginning to ask questions and uncover corruption, or as a result of insiders no longer fearful of speaking up, we find that tragedy often uncovers massive corruption. Even though the 1911 fire was an accident, the corruption of the garment industry and city government at the time had allowed them to skirt laws installing sprinkler systems and other safety measures that should have been in place.
We now know that Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, the owners of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, had scorched their factory before business hours twice in 1902, along with the Diamond Waist Company, their other property, both in 1907 and 1910, as a means of collecting on the large fire insurance policies they had purchased. Furthermore, the immigrant workers, nearly all teenagers who spoke no english, were often worked 12 hours a day, every day, only making about $7-12 per week (approximately $3.20 - 5.20 per hour in 2016).
The Power of Protest
Two years before the fire the International Ladies Garment Workers Union had begun a strike for higher pay and shorter more predictable working hours. The strike made progress, however the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was one of the few manufacturers who not only resisted but worked with corrupt police to arrest the protesting women and to have politicians conveniently look the other way.
In the face of strikes and protest, there is always initial resistance to silence their voice - sound familiar Bangladesh?Unfortunately, what usually increases their success with both the people and the government is tragedy. Post-fire the International Ladies Garment Workers Union led a march of 100,000 people to vocalize to the NY Legislature to take action and the NY Legislature created The New York Factory Commission of 1911, led by government officials to focus on preventing fires, in addition to passing 60 out of 64 proposed laws increasing workers’ safety.
The Biggest US Laws Instituted by the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire
1 | All doors must open outward to the street
2 | All doors must remain unlocked during business hours
3 | Sprinkler systems were required for any company with 25 people above ground level
4 | Clear pathways required to all exits
5 | Firefighting equipment must be maintained and in the building
6 | All employees must be trained on the proper use of a fire extinguisher, escape routes and practice fire drills
7 | Emergency evacuation plans & fire prevention plans are required to be posted
8 | The Fire Prevention Division of the Fire Department was created
From the protests in Bangladesh to right here on American soil, what will we do now, learn from history or repeat it? One thing is certain, we all have to work together: workers, consumers, businesses, and governments, in order to make real and lasting change.
You can start making change with your business today by only manufacturing with ethically certified factories. Email us to get connected with an ethical factory in the developing world, supporting the local economy and giving opportunity and hope to the workers’ and their families all around the world.
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