Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘India’

The Bangladeshi Triangle Shirtwaist Fire

Tuesday, December 11th, 2012

When I first read about the horrendous fire in Bangladesh, I immediately thought of the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire in New York in 1911 — more than 100 years ago. In many ways, nothing has changed. In some ways, some things have changed.

Today:

A Bangladeshi garment factory that was producing clothes for Wal-Mart, Disney,  and other major Western companies had lost its fire safety certification in June, five months before a blaze in the facility killed 112 workers, a fire official told the Associated Press.

Separately, the owner of the Tazreen factory told AP that he had only received permission to build a three-story facility but had expanded it illegally to eight stories and was adding a ninth at the time of the blaze…

The factory didn’t have any fire exits for its 1,400 workers, many of whom became trapped by the blaze. Investigators have said the death toll would have been far lower if there had been even a single emergency exit. Fire extinguishers in the building were left unused, either because they didn’t work or workers didn’t know how to use them.

100 years ago:

Near closing time on Saturday afternoon, March 25, 1911, a fire broke out on the top floors of the Asch Building in the Triangle Waist Company. Within minutes, the quiet spring afternoon erupted into madness, a terrifying moment in time, disrupting forever the lives of young workers. By the time the fire was over, 146 of the 500 employees had died. The survivors were left to live and relive those agonizing moments. The victims and their families, the people passing by who witnessed the desperate leaps from ninth floor windows, and the City of New York would never be the same.

The Triangle Fire tragically illustrated that fire inspections and precautions were woefully inadequate at the time. Workers recounted their helpless efforts to open the ninth floor doors to the Washington Place stairs. They and many others afterwards believed they were deliberately locked– owners had frequently locked the exit doors in the past, claiming that workers stole materials. For all practical purposes, the ninth floor fire escape in the Asch Building led nowhere, certainly not to safety, and it bent under the weight of the factory workers trying to escape the inferno. Others waited at the windows for the rescue workers only to discover that the firefighters’ ladders were several stories too short and the water from the hoses could not reach the top floors. Many chose to jump to their deaths rather than to burn alive.

Nothing has changed in 100 years — workers’ lives are thought of as expendable, corners are cut in the name of profit, whether the name is Triangle Waist Company or Wal-Mart.

What did change a bit in the wake of the 1911 fire was a renewed drive to unionize and strengthen health and safety laws. Out of the tragedy, workers mobilized.

Whether that will happen in Bangladesh is to be seen. It would be a great testament to those who died is, out of the ashes of the fire, workers organized to stop the survivors and others from being future victims of the greed of Wal-Mart and its global corporate ilk.

This post was originally posted on Working Life on December 7, 2012. Reprinted with Permission.

About the Author: Jonathan Tasini is a union leader and organizer, a social activist, and a commentator and writer on work, labor and the economy. From 1990 to April 2003, he served as president of the National Writers Union (United Auto Workers Local 1981). He was the lead plaintiff in Tasini vs. The New York Times, the landmark electronic rights case that took on the corporate media’s assault on the rights of thousands of freelance authors. He has also written four books, including the Audacity of Greed.

A Worldwide Revolt Against Poverty Wages

Thursday, August 19th, 2010

Jonathan TasiniYesterday, I wrote about how the decline of U.S. wages has made workers here cheaper to hire than workers in India, at least in the call center industry. Today, the news hails from Asia where workers are rising up against poverty-level wages.

From the Financial Times (and, as a side observation, the FT gives far better insight on a regular basis on these trends than anything you can read in the U.S. traditional press):

Bangladeshi garment workers, who make clothes for western brands such as H&M, Gap and Marks & Spencer, greeted a recent 80 per cent pay rise by rampaging angrily through the capital Dhaka burning cars and looting shops.

For the world’s lowest- paid garment workers, the increase in the minimum wage, effective from November, takes their pay from $23 to $43 (€33, £27.50) a month. It was their first pay rise for four years, a period of soaring food and fuel prices. However, the workers were enraged that Dhaka had not agreed to the $75 a month they had demanded.

“This is not enough for the survival of workers and their families,” said Amirul Haque Amin, president of Bangladesh’s National Garment Workers’ Federation, which has about 23,000 members. “Living costs – including food, clothes, shelter and medical care – are going higher and higher.”

….Demands for better pay across Asia reflect improving job opportunities in economies that are growing faster than their western markets.

….
In Cambodia, Phnom Penh recently raised the minimum wage by 21 per cent  – from $50 a month to $61. That was below what the more activist of Cambodia’s 273 unions demanded, although a three-day, industry-wide strike did not materialise.

Vietnam recorded 200 strikes last year by workers hit by inflation of 9 per cent. In April, for example, nearly 10,000 workers walked out of a Taiwan-owned shoe factory, demanding better pay.

In Indonesia – where powerful trade unions with millions of members play a crucial role in negotiating with employers – minimum wages, set by regional authorities, have been increasing.

In 2008, Jakarta raised the local minimum wage by 10 per cent to nearly $100 a month, although wages in the country’s remoter regions are half that.
….
“There are no industrial relations,” says Mr Alam. “The whole attitude is arrogant and feudal. Owners and government think they are helping the workers. The workers are not treated like workers – they are treated like beggars.”[emphasis added]

What is going on here?

There is a thread that connects the anger coursing throughout the globe about the entire failed economic model foisted upon the world’s workers for decades. Here, people have had it with working hard for decades and seeing all that hard work–productivity has been rising for 30 years–turn into a steady stream of money into the pockets of CEOs and the richest one percent. Republicans and Democrats have supported a bankrupt economic system based on the “free market” and “free trade”, leveraged buyouts that obliterate middle-class jobs and a campaign finance system that greases a knee-jerk granting of tax cuts for business before making sure that regular people can form unions to act as a counter-weight to the rapacious nature of the market.

And what of those jobs flowing abroad? Well, the FT article shows the reality: slave labor. No surprise. Those stories have been surfacing for years–yet, despite the growing poverty around the world, we still have a bi-partisan support (including from our president) for the very so-called “free trade” policies that have bred substandard wages.

Where this leads is not easy to tell. It is easy to talk about worldwide solidarity–and a whole lot harder to make it happen, because of cultural and language differences, the massive physical distances between one slave-wage haven and another, the inability of the poorest to have enough resources to organize on a daily basis…a whole host of reasons.

But, it is clear–the people have had it. They cannot, and should not, put up with the siphoning of the world’s wealth and resources into the hands of a few.

About the Author Jonathan Tasini: is the executive director of Labor Research Association. Tasini ran for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate in New York. For the past 25 years, Jonathan has been a union leader and organizer, a social activist, and a commentator and writer on work, labor and the economy. From 1990 to April 2003, he served as president of the National Writers Union (United Auto Workers Local 1981).He was the lead plaintiff in Tasini vs. The New York Times, the landmark electronic rights case that took on the corporate media’s assault on the rights of thousands of freelance authors.

Your Rights Job Survival The Issues Features Resources About This Blog