In the wake of the 2013 clothing factory collapse in Bangladesh, at Rana Plaza, people in the developed world are beginning to turn their eyes and minds to the real cost of the clothing they buy.
And not a moment too soon. The more than 1,100 who died on April 24, and the thousands more who survived, are a haunting lesson in Third World economics. It was only when the larger world outside Bangladesh learned that garment workers were forced back into the building in spite of warnings surrounding the huge crack that had developed, that the incident developed moral overtones.
It took the photo of a husband and wife who had died together beneath the rubble to make the West measure its moral responsibility. That culpability, which elicited global outrage and a promise to do better – has evolved into a promise to eradicate maquiladoras and the attitudes that make them viable.
Unfortunately, the only effective way to get rid of these forced labor sweatshops is to boycott companies like Wal-Mart, which refuses to source clothing above its vaunted “price point”. This strategy makes Wal-Mart rich and its real suppliers – the thousands of working poor in developing nations – abysmally poor.
The question is: how poor does one have to be to face death in a ramshackle building rather than losing one’s job?
No. 2, the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire
America has not always been exempt from these workplace disasters. On March 25, 1911, a fire on the upper floors of a New York building known as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory quickly engulfed workers, most of them girls and young women between the ages of 13 and 23.
It was the end of shift, or the loss of lives might have been even greater. As it was, 146 females, finding that they could not leave the building until the manager unlocked doors to the stairwell (which were kept locked to insure workers didn’t sneak out of work).
The approximately two dozen buckets of water were useless against flames fueled by lint and fabric scraps; one fire escape was so rotten that it literally fell apart when some workers tried to use it. The fire department came, but its hoses were not able to spray beyond the 7th floor; its ladders were even shorter. Nothing reached the 9th floor.
The most disturbing aspect of this tragedy was the fact that these girls, smelling their hair, clothes and skin beginning to burn, chose to jump out the windows rather than waiting to see if anyone could reach them.
People on the street watched in horror as the building began, literally, to rain bodies.
The single, greatest good to come from this disaster was increased government scrutiny of businesses in general – leading ultimately to today’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), a division of the U.S. Department of Labor.
Another plus was the strengthening of unions, as employees became aware that their bosses, for the most part, would not do what was necessary to protect them if that protection devalued t heir bottom line.
No. 3, the Pemberton Mill Fire
On January 10, 1860, the Lawrence, Massachusetts-based Pemberton Mill building, 117,000 square feet on five stories, collapsed a mere 7 years after construction. The cause appeared to have been faulty iron pillars supporting each floor, and improperly mixed mortar holding the brick walls together.
Eight hundred individuals were working at the time. Some of them were trapped in and under the collapsing walls. Rescue efforts commenced, but it was slow work, much of it by hand, and rescue was made even more tentative when a fire broke out about four hours later.
One hundred fifteen people perished. A further 165 were injured, many so badly they would never work again. It was perhaps America’s first taste of developers and builders who cut corners to increase their profits, but not t he last. The most tragic part? As many as 14 men were reportedly burned to death in full view of their loved ones.
No. 4, the S.S. Grandcamp
April 16, 1947, in the boom years after WWII, a vessel called the S.S. Grandcamp, registered in France and docked at the port in Texas City, Texas caught fire while carrying 2,100 metric tons of ammonium nitrate, a compound used to make fertilizer and explosive devices. Alongside it were a large number of bales of sisal twine, which could serve in a pinch as blasting cord.
The initial blast ignited a chain of fires and explosions all up and down the docks and even into nearby oil-storage facilities. In all, 581 people died, including all but a single member of the city’s fire department. Of the 581, 63 were never identified. Another 5,000 were injured, some seriously enough to need medical care. These 1,784 filled 21 area hospitals. The damage was so far-reaching that one of the ship’s anchors fell to ground more than 1.5 miles from the source of the explosion.
The S.S. Grandcamp is considered the deadliest industrial accident in U.S. history.
No.5, the Piper Alpha
The BP oil spill might have been the worst oil spill in history, but the Scottish oil rig Piper Alpha was the worst rig disaster in the world in terms of human lives lost.
On July 6, 1988, this rig exploded, killing 167 men, two of them from a rescue vessel. Plunging some 120 feet into the icy waters of the North Sea, 61 men survived, some so scarred they would never work again. Like the Shirtwaist Factory debacle, it changed t he way politicians and regulators looked at workplace safety.
There are hundreds more disasters, many in the mining and minerals industry. Most are far in the past; the U.S. has cleaned up its act in terms of employment safety and equity. But too many of those advances have been made by shipping the problems overseas, and too few by genuine efforts on the part of U.S. corporations to insure worker safety and satisfaction.