By Allison Richina, Intern, International Labor Rights Forum
ILRF was honored to be invited to join Union Privilege’s http://www.unionplus.org/ Lunch ‘n Learn on Friday. Union Privilege has provided consumer benefits to members and retirees of labor unions continuing the strength of unions. Just as unions provide strength in the workplace, Union Privilege provides that strength in the marketplace. ILRF was proud to have Campaign Director Tim Newman join the presentation. In addition one of ILRF’s Board members Carol Rosenblatt (Executive Director of Coalition of Labor Union Women) was able to join as well. The presentation and discussion provided an opportunity to highlight the history of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire and today’s issues around worker health and safety.
March 25, 2011 marked the 100th anniversary of the devastating fire that flourished through the upper three floors of the Triangle Factory in downtown Manhattan, killing 129 women and 17 men.. On the day of the fire at 4:40pm the 8th floor caught aflame (from what is thought to be a discarded cigarette), there was no plan, never even practice of a fire drill. Unfortunately 146 people were caught in the inescapable fire.. Sprinkles and fire drills were happening in other factories, but not in the Triangle Factory. Later evidence discovered that the ninth floor exits, with three-hundred employees, had been locked. They were trapped, without any ability to rescue themselves. For more information on the Fire, click here.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory continues to show an incredible amount of relevance in our labor world today. (Click here for more information how to get involved) We are continuously witnessing these same situations occurring throughout the world, in what is supposed to be a contemporary time of progressive labor conditions. However it is evident to see that the conditions of labor workers are still undermined.
Newman and Rosenblatt discussed that crude day of March 25, 1911, and the continuous struggle factory workers face globally in our current world. In addition to informing the audience of current conditions, Newman and Rosenblatt suggested the efforts we as a society can take in order to find solutions for today’s sweatshops. Throughout the talk at Union Privilege, those taking part in the discussion jumped in to give their take on the Triangle Fire, as well as their knowledge and passion for maintaining a sustainable environment for all workers globally. Many questions arose such as, “How can we directly help and avoid buying from companies that continue to violate workers rights.”
A few weeks ago, while attending a high school classroom discussion, students at Washington Visitation, had the same question for Kalpona Akter, labor leader of Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity. Kalpona explained to the seventeen-year-old teenagers that shopping at places like H&M isn’t bad, it in fact supplies work for the workers in Bangladesh, but most importantly we as shoppers should be asking pressing questions to companies like H&M or Walmart, like where are they buying their clothes from and what are the working conditions like for these workers aboard and in our nation.
We as shoppers must continue to question the conditions that are used to make our jeans, our shoes, or the meals we supply for our families. Because the truth is there are millions of workers that continue to suffer from inhumane treatment, with poor wages, and poor health and safety regulations. Another fantastic tool to unravel the products you are buying is checking out the Free2Work website, here you can see the ratings of the companies and discover the realities of their workplace.
Newman and Rosenblatt also suggested these options to get involved in creating a sweatfree world and establishing awareness:
- Send a letter to Wal-Mart in solidarity with garment workers and labor rights leaders in Bangladesh
- Join upcoming events and be a rapid responder: www.laborrights.org/
SHOP WITH A CONSCIENCE
- Check company ratings: www.free2work.org/
- Ask groups you’re apart of to buy union-made living-wage clothing: www.sweatfree.org/shopping/
- Urge your city or state to join Sweatfree Purchasing Consortium to grow the market for decent conditions
- Talk to us about organizing: firstname.lastname@example.org
During the Union Privilege discussion, we also talked about places there are a serious labor rights abuses. Today, Bangladesh is a major producer of apparel. The country employs 3.4 million garment workers in 4,200 factories that produce $12.6 billion in export earnings, representing 78% of the country’s total. The ILRF partners with organizations in Bangladesh to demand representation, recognition, and safe conditions for all workers. The ILRF continues to push health and safety requirements throughout factories in Bangladesh. Health and safety are critically significant in a workers’ world because it allows workers to maintain a healthy workplace, whether that means fire sprinklers, unlocked doors, uncrowded rooms, basic health requirements, bathrooms, or even allowing workers to take breaks for their overworked hours. These issues continue to play a huge role in the devastation that occur throughout factories. During the discussion at Union Privilege we were able to unpack these critical rights that could have prevented the Shirtwaist Fire and countless other fires, but ultimately didn’t.
Kalpona Akter, leader of Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, during a recent speaking tour explained the intertwined relationship of the Triangle Factory to the current factories throughout Bangladesh and the poor governance and regulation that continue to trample over millions of their workers.
“In many garment factories there are no bathrooms, narrow stairs, and no ventilation…There are some fancy well-decorated buildings where they take the auditors. In 2005, a nine-story building burned and collapsed with hundreds of workers. The owner didn’t have a building permit, but he got off scot-free because of his connections to government. At the Triangle Shirtwaist factory site in New York at least there is a plaque that says how many workers died in the fire. This helps us show our respect to them. But in Bangladesh, we still don’t know the exact number of workers who died when the KTS textile factory burned. We don’t know where the workers are. Parents still come and show us photographs, saying: ‘This is my daughter. Have you seen her?’ Government doesn’t care. Companies don’t care.”
–Kalpona Akter, Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity.
One hundred years later, factory fires continue to take the lives of neglected workers world-wide. As a result, the ILRF is working with partner organizations in Bangladesh to demand safer working conditions and respect for labor rights, including the right to organize and bargain collectively for better wages and safe working conditions. When workers are able to collectively organize and form unions, they then have an avenue to voice their own concerns and their fundamental entitlements in the workplace. For many workers, they continue to work in inhumane working conditions, where often times work is performed in unhealthy and unsafe conditions. Possessing the right to organize and bargain collectively, workers begin to understand their rights as workers and gain knowledge of what their rights really are and can take that knowledge back to the factory.
Listening to the discussion at Union Privilege and thinking about the everyday connections was very important to me. Sometimes it’s hard when there aren’t clear solutions to these big problems but seems like there is something each of us can do to join in the struggle.