On April 24, just outside of Bangladesh’s capital city, one of the worst industrial disasters in history killed over one thousand workers and injured scores more in the dubious service of making cheap clothing for consumers like you and me.
Around the same time, about 8,000 miles away in Brooklyn, my wife and I were cooing over the very cute dress that we had bought for our 9-month-old daughter from a well-known clothing retailer for $5. The lifespan of this little dress would not be more than a few months at best, but we loved it.
Then, after a moment of reflection, I suggested we look at the label. Like many low cost and relatively low-quality clothing items on the market today, we were disconcerted to find it was made in Bangladesh.
UPDATE: Bangladeshi salvage workers neared the end of their search for victims of the collapse of a factory building, scouring the basement of the complex that crumbled in on itself killing 1,127 people.–Reuters
Over one hundred years ago in New York City, where I live, I can imagine other consumers of women’s blouses having a similar reaction when 146 mostly immigrant Jewish and Italian garment workers in the Triangle Shirtwaist Company met a similar fate when the building in which their factory was situated caught fire. In the United States, the Triangle fire was a watershed moment.
Garment workers were galvanized to organize labor unions against the often violent opposition of employers; the government instituted a range of regulatory protections to monitor health and safety in factories; insurance companies required factory owners to clean up their act in order to be issued insurance policies; and consumers were made aware of the sweatshop like conditions in which their clothing was made. Although the Triangle fire is today remembered as a unique disaster that compelled change, in fact it was, like in Bangladesh, only the worst of a number of deadly fires that cursed New York City’s garment industry for years.
The question is, will the deaths and injuries in Bangladesh mark a sea change in the way that work and labor standards in that country and elsewhere are treated. The sad answer is probably not, because unlike the simpler days of the Triangle fire, today’s system of global production and consumption is far more complex and diffuse.
But if there is to be any progress, the solution lies not just in the hands of consumers and companies, but in a range of actors including industry, government, unions, and consumers.
First, we consumers must break our addiction to cheap clothing and wardrobes that get tossed away as easily as fast food containers. The $5 shirt that we buy from any number of low-cost, high turnover retailers doesn’t sew itself. It demands low cost labor working in often high-risk environments.