On a recent trip to the US I took a tour of the garment factories on the Pacific West Coast. I went from cutting rooms to production lines to talk to managers and workers about the state of manufacturing in the country. I was surprised when, more than a couple of times, conversation drifted to an event that happened over 100 years ago.
On a spring afternoon in 1911 a fire started in a cotton-scraps bin at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York. Soon the building on the corner of Green Street and Washington place was ablaze. With many of the doors locked to prevent pilfering, garment workers jumped from the ninth floor; 146 died in total.
“We have not forgotten Triangle,” a young sportswear entrepreneur tells me in his office in Los Angeles’ industrial Vernon district. “It has shaped labour relations ever since. It shaped the way we work.”
Triangle was a watershed event in US labour history. In its wake powerful unions were formed. A factory investigating commission was instated to impose safety measures. Wages were negotiated. Rights were observed. Yet progress is not at all that simple. As globalisation took hold many jobs and contracts vanished as corporations tracked east in search of lower margins.
The Triangle Shirtwaist disaster is in the minds of Americans because of another very similar event that occurred in Bangladesh – with, tragically, an even higher death toll. It’s now confirmed that the collapse of the nine-storey Rana Plaza factory in Dhaka claimed over one thousand lives. Like the Triangle disaster, there has been international outcry following the events. Pope Francis has spoken out. The Bangladeshi government has announced measures very similar to the ones seen after the shirtwaist fire in New York. They will allow unions to be formed more easily, safety checks will be made and prosecutions will be carried through.
This is not simply a domestic issue. The US and many other developed countries must treat this event as its own. Like the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, it must trigger an overhaul of how things are made and where. The onus is on the consumers, the corporations and governments around the world to impose the standards to protect every worker in their supply chain.
In 2011, hundreds of New Yorkers took to the streets to remember the Triangle workers. They held banners made from shirts and waved them in their honour. There is a clear solidarity in the garment industry – as I found in LA.
The workers of Rana Plaza factory deserve the same respect and the same rights as their modern western counterparts. They should inherit the progress made and the lessons learned from the past.
Sophie Grove is Monocle's senior editor