Bangladesh fire tragedy echoes New York's grim Triangle
Dozens of workers jumped to their deaths and more than 100 were injured when a fire swept through a Bangladeshi factory yesterday. Many could not get out because of locked doors. The firm makes garments for US-based retailers Gap.
The blaze broke out on the tenth floor of the building just outside Dhaka, in an area where trousers were stored for shipment. It spread to the floor above where there were machines and a works canteen.
Abdur Rahim, who was injured, said most of the workers were having lunch when the fire broke out. "Heavy plumes of fire suffocated the area." He said two of the emergency exits were closed. Unable to walk down, many broke the windows to escape the fire and injured themselves. He saw at least fifty people leaping to their deaths.
The factory was owned by local business giant Hameem Group which employ about 12,000 people, about half of them in the building. Sunil Kumar Sarkar, a director, said: "Since it was lunch time, most of the people were out."
A spokesman for Gap confirmed that the factory supplied clothes to its stores, adding that the company was "terribly saddened" by the fire. He said Gap held regular safety audits, including fire precautions, and was sending a team out to assist at the Bangladesh site. i
Employers claim they are having to keep down costs to keep orders and compete with new rivals in places like Cambodia. They say safety has improved, but workers' rights groups say standards are still inadequate. A fire in February at a sweater factory outside Dhaka killed 20 people and injured dozens.
'I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement'.
The description of workers leaping to their deaths from a burning building brought to mind another terrible blaze, almost a century ago, in the United States.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York on March 25, 1911, caused the deaths of 146 garment workers, many of them young Jewish or Italian immigrant women. They were trapped in the burning building, because management had locked doors to stairwells and exits to prevent people leaving early.
A few - including the bosses - managed to escape across neighbouring roofs. But others were caught on the eighth, ninth or tenth floors, with no choice other than to leap from windows or wait to be burned to death. The fire engines of the day had ladders that could only reach up the sixth floor.
Horrified witnesses on the streets saw a man and woman embrace at a window then leap together. They saw some women with clothes already in flames, coming down like burning torches. Afterwards they always remembered hearing the repeated thuds of bodies hitting the pavement. Many of the bodies found inside were so badly burned they could not be identified even as to gender.
The factory owners soon managed to open up on new premises, and fought off actions from survivors in the courts. But the disaster did spur efforts to legislate for factory safety, and the growth of trade unions, like he International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU).
I would be a traitor to these poor burned bodies if I came here to talk good fellowship. We have tried you good people of the public and we have found you wanting. The old Inquisition had its rack and its thumbscrews and its instruments of torture with iron teeth. We know what these things are today; the iron teeth are our necessities, the thumbscrews are the high-powered and swift machinery close to which we must work, and the rack is here in the firetrap structures that will destroy us the minute they catch on fire.
This is not the first time girls have been burned alive in the city. Every week I must learn of the untimely death of one of my sister workers. Every year thousands of us are maimed. The life of men and women is so cheap and property is so sacred. There are so many of us for one job it matters little if 146 of us are burned to death.
We have tried you citizens; we are trying you now, and you have a couple of dollars for the sorrowing mothers, brothers and sisters by way of a charity gift. But every time the workers come out in the only way they know to protest against conditions which are unbearable the strong hand of the law is allowed to press down heavily upon us.
Public officials have only words of warning to us — warning that we must be intensely peaceable, and they have the workhouse just back of all their warnings. The strong hand of the law beats us back, when we rise, into the conditions that make life unbearable.
I can't talk fellowship to you who are gathered here. Too much blood has been spilled. I know from my experience it is up to the working people to save themselves. The only way they can save themselves is by a strong working-class movement.
On April 5, 1911, nearly 100,000 workers marched through Manhattan to honour the Triangle victims.
What Rose Schneiderman said about the workers movement remains true, whatever improvements have been won, and which are now threatened, as governments like that in Britain want to take away restrictions and inspections that the bosses find a nuisance.
And the struggle for workers' lives is international.