In the Jewish imagination, the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City is a kind of slavery in Egypt story: We all were there. One hundred forty-six workers – most were Jewish and Italian immigrant women between 14 and 43 years old – died in the fire because the managers had locked them in. The collapse late last month of the sweatshop building outside Dhaka, Bangladesh, can only take us back to the Triangle fire in horror and outrage.
As we go to press, the Dhaka death count nears 600 people, with hundreds more missing. The dead and missing workers’ job was to turn out clothes for many popular international brands. In Bangladesh, where the garment industry provides 80 percent of the country’s export income, the minimum wage for garment workers is $37 a month.
This is the price we pay for bargain clothing. But the deal is clearly no bargain. Some will say that notwithstanding the terrible working conditions, the manufacturing jobs allow citizens of impoverished countries to raise their standard of living. And they will argue that raising wages or improving working conditions in one country will only cause profit-driven corporations to flee to another country where labor is cheaper.
Whatever the merits of those arguments, they work to perpetuate an intolerable situation which needs to be stopped. Unfortunately, it appears that the race to the bottom has found its level in Bangladesh, where labor is cheap and life is cheaper. Given that reality, Bangladesh is a good place to start the correction effort.
There have been fitful attempts to improve the overall situation. Calls are rising again for retailers to sign on to the Bangladesh Fire and Building Safety Agreement, which was proposed by labor activists in 2011, but found few corporate takers. The agreement would require companies to pay more to their suppliers, which will, in turn, enable factory owners to pay for safety upgrades. We encourage retailers to agree to the proposal.
But beyond retailer agreements, responsibility for working conditions and fee payment amounts must be established at all levels of the supply chain. Factory owners must be held accountable for the health and safety of their workers. And corporations must ensure that humane standards are met in the production of their merchandise. No one should be permitted to hide behind the alibi that the fault belongs to a subcontractor several levels down the line.
Recently, Walt Disney Co. announced it would no longer let its apparel be manufactured in Bangladesh. Other companies may follow suit. Although that decision will allow those companies to avoid involvement with the worst offender, it does nothing to improve the global system where Triangle Shirtwaist Factories spread from one poor country to another. Instead, we endorse enforceable commitments to health and safety in the manufacturing process wherever it may occur as the key to making a job into a livelihood, and not a possible death sentence.