When the Rana Plaza building collapsed, I was moved to find out more about an industry that could be so casually wasteful of human life. I discovered that Bangladesh was the world’s second-largest exporter of manufactured clothing, that the industry employed almost 4 million people-- mostly women-- and that clothing exports made up almost 80% of Bangladeshi export earnings. Like the Rana Plaza building itself, the industry had sprung up quickly, without meaningful government oversight-- and on the same shaky foundations of greed, graft and the planet’s lowest minimum wage.
Statistics like this provide one way into the pain and truth of an occurrence. Family history gave me another.
A hundred years ago my family immigrated from Czarist Russia to New York City’s Lower East Side. They had come for political freedom, but making a living was the desperately immediate necessity. Despite my great grandmother’s ingenuity, my great grandfather’s wage could not be stretched to cover the family bills. My grandmother was the oldest available child. They piled her hair on her head, dressed her in a long skirt and sent her to work in the sweatshops.
She toiled long hours. She lived in a slum so filthy and overcrowded that the title of a book about it (How the Other Half Lives) became shorthand for substandard living conditions. She was forced to witness human desperation no young person should see. She owned one skirt and two blouses. On her only day off, she washed her clothes and her hair and stayed home, waiting for them to dry, so she could return clean for another exhausting week’s work.
It was 1910. My grandmother was 13 years old.
In 1911 fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, not far from where my grandmother lived and worked. Doors to stairwells and exits had been locked to prevent theft. More than 100 garment workers died. This was our Rana Plaza. In those days, public outrage and the reforms it sparked were national. Today a globalized economy means that protest must cross boundaries to have meaningful effect.
My grandmother’s sweatshop experience, which warped her spirit from the inside out, gives me an insight that takes me beyond statistics. Aside from the inescapable low-level anxiety of working in an industry where fire, industrial accident and building collapse are routine, I know that today’s sweatshop workers feel the humiliation of living in squalid, overcrowded slums. I know that they never get enough rest, and must always worry that if they get sick or injured on the job, even their low standard of living will be put at risk. I know that above all, they feel shame that no matter how long or how hard they work, their skimpy paychecks will not stretch to cover their families’ needs. They will be forced to send their children to work instead of to school.
As a child, I was angry at the meanness that made my grandmother’s life a misery. As an old lady, I want better for her Bangladeshi brothers and sisters. Urging apparel companies to sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh is the best means we have to help them secure that better future.