Slavery in the Factory – Part 4
In Part 3, I told the story of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in NYC. The building where more than 146 people died in 1911 is now a biology lab at New York University.
From the 1880’s to the 1920’s textile manufacturing sweatshops were fueled by immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. Following the Triangle fire reforms were passed, immigrations laws were tightened and labor unions grew powerful. In the 1950’s there were more than 275,000 garment workers in NYC alone and they earned about the same salary as an auto worker. By 1996, there were only 70,000 , most not making minimum wage. This was a result of mass market garment production moving to the low range work forces of Asia and Latin America. If a US company wanted to compete it had to lower labor costs (the return of the sweatshop).
What abut all the labor laws and reforms? In 1996 , the Department of Labor had less than 800 inspectors who worked in all areas of US industry. Owners of companies with dubious reputations kept two sets of books, coerced employee whistleblowers and could, if necessary, close their factory and simply move locations. If you think the products of these sweatshops are found in only the lowest-cost big box stores you would be surprised to learn invoices can be traced to some very high-end retailers. The fact that sweatshops remain in the US can be also attributed to the need for low cost clothing
Outsourcing textile manufacturing has made some foreign manufacturers very, very wealthy. According to the World Trade Organization the top 10 clothing exporters in 2011 were: China with $153.8 billion, Italy with $23.3 b, Bangladesh with $19.9 b, Germany, India, Turkey. Vietnam, France, Spain and Belgium trailing. Today, Bangladesh is the second largest exporter after China.
The safety rating in these countries is approaching abysmal. In 2012 , two factory fires in Karachi, Pakistan killed more than 283 workers. Again, there were locked doors, barred windows and lack of safety equipment. A fire in a factory owned by Tazreen Fashions LTD in Bangladesh killed 112 workers in a building with no fire exits. One of the worst disasters was the collapse of the RANA Plaza, Dhakar, Bangladesh, which killed over 1,100 workers on April 24, 2013. As a result of the RANA catastrophe a five year accord was signed by major European retailers for the infusion of funds for renovations making factories safe and independent inspections.. The problem is that the standards of the Accord and Alliance are deemed unrealistic by Bangladesh. According to the vice president of the Bangladesh Manufacturers and Exporters Assoc. “it is unfair for the retailers to demand European factory standards when they are paying Bangladeshi prices for the clothes they are buying”. An engineer advising the government stated that most of the factories will fail the inspections and new factories would have to be built. Major US retailers are pursuing similar programs.