Last week, I stood in Forever 21, picking out clothes to wear to the various eating house events. I wasn’t looking for quality clothes, so I ventured over to the $5 or less section. I browsed through $3 leopard print bodysuits, $5 silver leggings, even a $1 crop top. I could tell the clothes weren’t extremely well made, but they seemed like they should cost more than that. I didn’t complain, though. I had a college-kid-on-a-budget mindset, and a $1 shirt sounded pretty nice to me.
I have known for a while that my clothes have been made by workers in other countries who didn’t receive the same working standards that Americans enjoy. When I was younger, I wondered why all my clothes were made in Asia. It seemed like it did not make sense for businesses to transport clothing all the way across the Pacific for American consumers. The more I asked about why businesses did this, the more I understood about how outsourcing can take advantage of those who don’t have laws protecting them. Before I read this Guardian article, however, I had never been exposed to a first-hand account from someone who makes the clothes I wear. When I read the article, I thought back to that extremely cheap rack of clothing.
In this increasingly globalized world, consumers often have no idea what happens to the products they buy before it reaches a store. They can read a tag and see in which country their clothes were made, but beyond that, the whole process of the product’s creation is detached entirely from the product. Even the consumers who do know about the unjust treatment of the workers who make their clothes do not have much of an option when buying them. Moreover, businesses currently have no incentive to care about how the workers in different countries are being treated. On the other hand, the textile industry has created a rapid boom of Bangladesh’s economy. Textile workers like Mahmuda are making more money than they did working in the country. I believe the growing economy will have allowed the people of Bangladesh to make a change.
Upon reading about the collapse of the textile factory in Rana Plaza, I immediately thought of a similar event in US history: the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. An accident occurred in a poorly built textile factory, which caused many workers to die unnecessarily. The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory was not equipped with proper fire escapes. Many doors had been intentionally locked so that workers could not take a break, and piles of scrap fabric blocked other doors. In May of 1911, this New York building caught fire. The workers, mostly immigrant women, became trapped on the top floors. Some flung themselves out of windows, others burned trying to escape. This tragic event occurred only 107 years ago in New York City, and it was definitely not the only time when workers suffered due to mistreatment in a US factory during that time period. The factory owners, Harris and Blanck, were never charged with manslaughter; instead, they received sixty thousand dollars from their insurance company for the lives they lost. There was no direct justice.
The current situation in Dhaka displays some parallels with New York in the early 20th century. Mahmuda said that she migrated to Dhaka to receive a job. She was even poorer before she moved to Dhaka. When she was interviewed, she had been working every day in a crowded textile factory. That factory, just like the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Greenwich Village, was built poorly because a lack of executive concern. Over a thousand people died and over two thousand became injured when the building collapsed. Had there been proper, non-corrupt administrative oversight, all of those people could still be alive. Workers took to the streets afterward in protest, but according to the article, normal life was restored a few days later.
The parallel between a textile factory catching fire in New York in the early 1900s and one collapsing in Dhaka, Bangladesh in 2013 exposes several facts about the society in which Americans are living today. First, a lack of executive empathy for factory workers is not foreign to the United States. It occurred here just over a hundred years ago. The notion that countries like Bangladesh have corrupt or inadequate governments because of any flaw of their people is racist. The United States allowed blatant mistreatment of workers for years. The second, more optimistic lesson learned from this parallel is that labor laws changed as laborers in New York pushed against oppressive forces. The Triangle Shirtwaist fire raised public awareness about the mistreatment of workers. Laborers unionized, banding together to fight for their rights. Over the next few years, New York adopted strict worker protection laws. Now, New York is one of the most prosperous cities in the world. Creating change will take a great deal of effort, but there is hope for the workers of Bangladesh.
Consumers in the United States and other western countries have the luxury of being able to buy extremely cheap clothing at the cost of mistreated workers in other countries. These workers do not have the same privilege of protective labor laws. That problem may seem distant to consumers, but the fact that workers in New York had to endure the same difficulties means that this problem is much closer to home. Clothing companies need to be required to be more transparent about where the clothes come from, who makes them, and under what conditions. A change in the working conditions in Bangladesh could come much more easily with a push from the outside. According to a report from Reuters, none of the top one hundred fashion brands scored above 50 on a scale of transparency from 0 to 100. This means that legislatures in countries where these clothes are sold need to require fashion brands to give more information about where their products are made and under what conditions. If a consumer knew that the one dollar shirt they were about to buy was made by a worker in a sweatshop without ventilation, maybe they would choose not to buy it. That way, brands that treat their workers better will benefit.
Poulton, Lindsay, et al. “The Shirt on Your Back.” The Guardian, 16 Apr. 2014, www.theguardian.com/world/ng-interactive/2014/apr/bangladesh-shirt-on-your-back.
“The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911- Aftermath.” U.S. Department of Labor, www.dol.gov/shirtwaist/aftermath.htm.
Womersley, Mia. “No fashion brand is fully transparent – report.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 25 Apr. 2017, www.reuters.com/video/2017/04/25/no-fashion-brand-is-fully-transparent-re?videoId=371549837.