Remembering Yesterday's Workers, Protecting Workers Today

Posted by Barbara Shailor
March 25, 2011
Survivors of Fire at Triangle Shirtwaist Company in New York

On March 25, 100 years ago, a fire started in a rag bin at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in the garment district of Manhattan. The fire swept through the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors, too high for fire ladders to reach.

Inside, hundreds of women and children sewed garments. They worked 10 to 12 hours a day, seven days a week. "If you don't come in on Sunday," the sign read, "you need not come back on Monday."

The doors to each floor were locked. The workers were trapped. Hundreds of workers, mostly immigrant women and young girls, their clothes and hair ablaze, threw themselves off window ledges onto the streets below. One hundred and forty-six Triangle workers were burned or crushed to death.

The outcry was immediate. One hundred thousand people marched in the memorial parade down Broadway. Workers began signing up for unions. Reformers demanded laws to regulate workplaces.

But it took decades, scarred by many more fires, and many more tragedies, before sensible labor standards were enacted and enforced. Core labor rights became part of the framework of the American market, contributing directly to building the broad middle class that is the hallmark of our democracy.

The Triangle fire may seem like a bygone age, yet hauntingly similar tragedies have taken place over the last century and continue today. In 1993, the worst industrial fire in history broke out at a huge toy company outside Bangkok, Thailand. Again, the fire exits were blocked and the doors locked. The workers were trapped. Women jumped from upper story windows. And on that day, 188 workers were killed, 469 seriously injured. The tragedy shook the nation, and unions subsequently forced changes in Thai labor laws to protect workers.

In 2007, 37 workers were killed and 19 injured when a fire broke out at an unlicensed shoe factory in China. Last year, several fires occurred in factories throughout Bangladesh, including one in December that killed at least 25 garment workers and injuring dozens more in a factory outside Dhaka that manufactures clothes for western retailers. Prior to that, in February, a clothing factory fire in the same area killed 21 and injured dozens of others.

As detailed annually in the State Department's Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, violations of worker rights and workplace casualties remain far too common in the production of goods we consume daily -- in apparel sweatshops, mines, construction sites, and farms. As global supply chains increasingly produce and transport goods across the world, we need to help our trading partners to learn and apply the lessons from the Triangle fire.

These tragedies help us place where we are -- and where we need to go. Now more than ever, we need to move forward to ensure that global supply chains reflect our values -- including the dignity of work, equal opportunity for all workers, an end to forced labor, and the right of people to organize and bargain on their own behalf. These are not just the foundations for core labor rights; they are grounded in human rights, proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the United States has championed.

As the Triangle tragedy revealed, these basic rights provide essential protections for workers. They -- and the independent free trade unions that they protect -- are also vital in ensuring that the benefits of growing productivity are widely shared and help to build markets for U.S. exports. And, as we have witnessed across the world, from Solidarnosc (Solidarity) in Poland to recent events in Egypt, independent free trade unions are vital building blocks of democratic movements.

The Obama Administration has made strengthening worker rights within the rules governing the global marketplace central to its mission. The Administration has committed to ensuring that protections for workers are negotiated in trade accords, and that foreign governments receiving U.S. trade benefits enforce worker rights in practice. Through targeted technical cooperation and determined labor diplomacy, administration efforts also assist countries in improving their labor laws and building the capacity of civil society organizations to defend worker rights.

As in the United States, enacting and enforcing global labor standards is not a quick and easy process. While worker rights have been accepted universally in principle, they are still contested in practice. For the United States, championing core labor rights internationally serves both our values and our interests.

A measure of our progress will come as tragedies like the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire are remembered as part of our collective past, not as horrors revisited in the present.

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Related Content: Presidential Proclamation -- 100th Anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire



Rhode Island, USA
March 27, 2011

James in Rhode Island writes:

The IMF needs to recommend to international community, such as the G20 and G8, that they meet to discuss how markets will be distributed internationally. It seems that countries, such as Britain, are lowering their corporate tax rate and the U.S. is strongly considering lowering its tax rate which could destabalize (create global economic trade wars) the global economy.

South Korea
March 27, 2011

Palgye in South Korea writes:

To provide rice to North Korea, balance of forces in the North Come on, try for peace in Northeast Asia's first think. Although South Korea can provide, to achieve a balance with China as a superpower or the UN to think there should be something that came from. Rice giving a hunger to resolve the ostensible reason, and for practical reasons North Korea continues to the middle position in the jamming, they are deceiving us, and it effectively acts that you are believing, self-satisfied with the appearance that lives, Korea made with the Economic Community of leave, is produced in North Korea's consumer market will have that stuff I think. Japan, Korea, China and the middle class and the upper layer, and, in Europe and America

The issue of North Korea appear to have been economies of scale, and consumers should be the workers' income, as the western portion of capital investment to bring the Communist Party, when there is no assurance that the policy is not open to the idea. Can be overcome I think. Determination and with the cooperation of China ...

i don`t like Hyundai

April 12, 2011

Robert writes:

Human Rights advocates are all over the world. They wanted to protect the majority of the workers thus providing appropriate compensation to the greater population. As we all know, the world is suffering from an economic turmoil that every country is trying to uplift themselves. There are instances that we have to give the best shot in order to make both ends meet.

terrance f.
New York, USA
April 13, 2011

Terrance F. in New York writes:

I agree that the workers should be protected. And in case of emergency every company should have insurance and an open forum where workers can talk. They must be able to express the rights they are given.


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