March, 23 2011 |  Download PDF |  Share

Triangle Returns: Young Women Continue to Die in Locked Sweatshops

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By Charles Kernaghan

A hundred years ago, the tragedy of the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire struck a deep nerve in the American people, and they demanded reforms which would remake our industrial landscape and guarantee the rights of workers.  Laws were passed demanding automatic sprinkler systems, exits that opened outward and could not be locked, and mandatory fire drills.  Wall Street and the factory owners fought back, but they lost.  The 146 workers killed at Triangle did not die in vain.  The progressive reforms continued over the next 40 years.  By 1938, sweatshops were wiped out in the U.S.  Minimum wage law were in place.  There were limits on working hours and time-and-a-half for overtime work.  By the 1950s, 34 percent of all American workers were organized, and the middle class was built.  We worked hard, and our lives improved.

Now, 97 percent of all garments are made off shore, the vast majority under harsh sweatshop conditions.  It is the same with auto parts, computers, cell phones and Barbie dolls.  We are racing backward in the global economy, trapped in a Race to the Bottom, competing over who will accept the lowest wages and the most miserable living and working conditions.

Just three months shy of the 100th anniversary of the Triangle fire, on December 14, 2010, a fire broke out at the Hameem factory in Bangladesh, which was sewing garments for Gap.  The fire alarms did not go off, and the emergency exits were locked on the 9th floor, killing 29 workers-many of whom jumped to their deaths-and injuring over 100.  At Hameem, the workers toil 12 to 14 hours a day, seven days a week, with just a single day off a month.  The highest wage at Hameem is 28 cents an hour--less than one-tenth of what the Triangle workers earned 100 years ago!   (Adjusted for inflation, the 14 cents an hour they earned in 1911 is worth $3.18 an hour today.)  The garment workers in Bangladesh are trapped in misery, living in makeshift hovels.


Hameem management busted a union organizing drive at their factory in September 2008, imprisoning the union president and firing all 19 of the lead activists.  It did not matter that well over half of the workers supported the union's demands.

When the workers in Bangladesh took to the streets in July 2010 demanding a 35-cent-an-hour wage, they were beaten with clubs.  The police shot rubber bullets and used powerful water cannons to sweep the workers off their feet.  There was dye in the water so that demonstrating workers could be identified and imprisoned later.

We are at a cross roads.  We can stand back and allow the corporations to drive this Race to the Bottom. Or, we can fight back.

The United States is still the largest economy and market in the world.  This gives the American people a powerful voice, if we choose to use it.

Corporations have demanded and won all sorts of laws-intellectual property and copyright laws-to protect their products, which are backed up by sanctions.  Anyone making a knock-off of Gap's toddler denim shorts, which were made in the Hameem sweatshop, will be sued and end up in jail.

However, when we ask the companies if we can have similar laws to protect the rights of the human being who makes the product, they respond, "No!  That would be an impediment to Free Trade!"

Something is wrong when the corporate product is legally protected, but not the human being who made it.  And the corporate leaders must be laughing all the way to the bank.

Working together with the United Steelworkers union, religious organizations, students and other activists, we drew up worker rights legislation which for the first time ever will hold corporations accountable to respect local labor laws in the U.S. and internationally.

The legislation is very simple.  Corporations must adhere to the local labor laws, including minimum wage levels, in the countries where they are producing.  This should be no problem, as every company says they already do this.   Have you ever heard a company say they are violating local labor laws?  In addition, under the legislation, corporations will be held accountable to respect the core ILO internationally recognized worker rights standards-no child or forced labor, decent working conditions, freedom of association, the right to organize a union and bargain collectively.  Here too, this should not be a problem, since the companies say they strictly adhere to the International Labor Organization's worker rights standards.

The Decent Working Conditions and Fair Competition Act is very simple.  Corporations can produce goods and services anywhere in the world.  But if they violate local labor laws in the countries they are producing, then their goods cannot be imported to the U.S., sold here or exported.  The same is true of the core ILO labor rights standards.  If the ILO standards are violated, the product cannot be imported, sold or exported from the U.S.

When the USW introduced the jobs bill in the 110th Congress, the were 175 co-sponsors in the House and 26 in the Senate, including Senators Obama, Biden and Clinton.

A Harris Poll showed that 79 percent of the people surveyed supported the proposed labor rights legislation.

There is even a precedent for such legislation.  When Congress was alerted that garment manufacturers in China were producing winter jackets for sale at the Burlington Coat Factory stores, and that the fur collars were made of dog and cat fur, Congress went ballistic.  No one would kill dogs and cats on their watch!  In no time, they passed the Dog and Cat Protection Act of 2000, which prohibits the import, sale or export of dog and cat fur from the U.S.  Now we need to give the same legal protections to workers in the global economy.

This is our time to act, and the worker rights legislation is our vehicle.



Download the full report

Watch the 9-minute documentary, Triangle Returns