Friday, 25 March 2011

The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. As I'm sure most of us know from various history classes, the fire was a huge tragedy--144 immigrant workers, locked in on the eighth floor of a garment factory, perished in the flames. After the fire, new safety codes were put into place to protect the safety of all workers. The New York Times has set up a blog about the incident, with one particularly moving piece about the victims' descendants.

The Times has also created a video series about current working conditions in the garment industry in New York.

I've worked in the Garment District for the past few summers and I've seen quite a few factories. Most of them, as you can see in the video, are well-lit, air conditioned, none of the doors were locked, everyone had a lunch and dinner break, and the facilities were smoking-free (no wayward cigarette could start a fire, and the air was clean for the workers). So, on the surface, working conditions are decent. Obviously, as an intern, it was impossible to know if any of the factories I observed were actual sweat shops--i.e., does the factory owner pay the workers minimum wage in a timely fashion? Is the workload doable? I believe that my bosses used legitimate factories. The video above highlights other issues in the Garment District: employment and the nature of that employment. Like the women and men who died in the fire a century ago, immigrants come from all over the world--Asia, Africa, and South America--to work in these factories for long hours with little pay. Unlike the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory workers, these immigrants would not be working at factories that take high volume orders. By the mid-20th century, New York was the apparel manufacturing capital of the entire United States. Now, 100 years after the fire, almost all of that work has either gone to LA and Mexico or across the Pacific to Southeast Asia and (what we will probably see more in the coming years as China outsources its manufacturing) Africa.

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