On March 25, 1911, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory went up in flames. 146 workers died in the fire, from smoke inhalation, and from jumping or falling to their death. Here are a few useful factoids worth noting:
- The Triangle Shirtwaist company occupied top three floors of the 10 story building.
- Immigrant workers worked 9 hours a day during the week and 7 hours on Saturdays, earning between $7.00 and $12.00 per week.
- The oldest victim was Providenza Panno, age 48.
- The youngest victim was 11 year old Mary Goldstein.
101 years later, on November 25th, 2012, the Tazreen Fashion factory in Dhaka, Bangladesh went up in flames. At least 111 workers died in the fire, from smoke inhalation, and from trying to escape via the staircases in the building. Here are a few useful factoids worth noting:
- The building was 9 stories high, with most of the workers on the first five floors. The top three floors were under construction and unoccupied.
- Although most workers were gone for the day, more than 600 were working overtime.
- Workers were paid approximately $37.00 per month, the government mandated wage....which is about $9.25 per week.
- The factory had a history of safety violations and had previously been coded “orange,” a warning grade, by Wal-Mart.
One would think that impact of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire would have a greater impact on American work and safety ethic. And I supposed that government regulation within the United States insures that sweatshops are few and far between. They are not gone here…we all know this….but they are no longer standard parts of the working landscape. Outside the US, however is another story completely.
The American appetite for mass produced brand-name-luxury-goods-at-on sale-prices sends scouts out looking for the next cheap labor pool. I defy you to find mass produced clothing made in the US. It was just a few months ago that Ralph Lauren was taken to task for producing the hideously ugly Olympic uniforms overseas. But I stray from the point.
One can argue this demand employs millions of workers worldwide. But does having a job in a slave factory at slave wages make having any job okay? As an “advanced” society, what exactly do we owe those workers?
A lot of people will say we owe them nothing. They working conditions should be monitored by their own government, not ours…and that is correct. However, if the contract holder is an American firm or retail chain, do we not have an obligation to make certain the workers are treated fairly and paid a decent wage. BUT…is our idea of “fair” and our idea of “decent wage” a uniform standard?
Does any of this bother you? It sure as hell bothers me. For the record and to be PERFECTLY clear, I will not set one single foot inside a Wal-Mart. Their idea of ethics and my idea of ethics are diametrically opposed. I try to shop locally whenever possible. And when I do shop, especially for soft goods like towels and clothing, there are some countries I will NOT support. China is first on that list. And there is a method to the madness.
The criteria is “how good a trading partner is the country on the label, and what do I know about their human rights record?” The corollary becomes, “Is this manufacturer known for being human rights cognizant?” This is like being kosher. You know what you’re supposed to eat and not eat. Reading food labels is a way of life, so it’s not exactly a quantum leap to read clothing labels. This is my private little revolt, but at least I am cognizant of what I am buying and where my very hard earned dollars are going.
The workers of Bangladesh and other places where clothing is contracted deserve a whole lot more than sweatshop conditions and a $1.00 an hour wage. They have the right to clean and safe factory floors with ample exits and safety training. As long as they are an integral part of our consumer chain, they should be able to have hopes and expectations just like American workers. If you insist on off-shoring your contracts, at least act like a responsible citizen abroad.
Orange carding the factory is not enough. Telling the brokers you will not contract to a substandard manufacturing facility is a non-negotiable point. Explaining to your shareholders that ethics are more important than profit will be a challenge, but it can and must be done.
Tell your customers. People want to feel good about what they buy. Up the ethical standard…and then advertise the hell out of it. Raise the bar. Set the example. Do what’s right for everyone.
Do what’s right for everyone….and there will be no more Triangle Shirtwaist or Tazreen Fashion fires.
The Wifely Person's Tip O'the Week
Have ethical issues with a company's trading practices?
Vote with your feet and your wallet.
Someone else actually wants your business.