The Cost of Cheap Clothes

Ending child labor, establishing the right to organize, fighting for a just wage: 100 years after the Triangle Shirtwaist fire claimed the lives of 146 people in New York’s Greenwich Village from a global perspective a familiar litany of critical challenges persist in the experiences of modern workers in the world’s clothing and textile industries. Most of that work has long departed from the United States and is now located around the world. Many apparel factories are concentrated in Asia. According to U.N. estimates, 1.5 billion garments are sewn by an 40 million people working in 250,000 factories in the world's poorest nations. Workers can earn as little as pennies an hour, endure long shifts every day of the week. They suffer from exposure to dangerous chemicals and remain vulnerable to the exploitation of factory owners and the physical and sexual abuse of managers. Mortal suffering, not unlike Triangle, is sadly also still well known. In December last year, Bangladesh experienced its own Triangle disaster when 29 workers died, trapped by fire at a garment factory in Dhaka. (Read Clayton Sinyai's review of two new documentaries on the fire here.)

In a statement today commemorating the Triangle tragedy, Patrick Itschert, General Secretary of the International Textile, Garment and Leather Workers’ Federation, says that garment workers at the international level still struggle for the kind of code and legal protections that followed in the wake of Triangle in the United States. “One hundred years ago, at the Triangle shirtwaist factory in New York City, 146 workers died because greedy factory owners violated workers’ basic rights and ignored health and safety regulations, and the authorities turned a blind eye to these violations," he said. “When a fire broke out on the ninth floor it spread quickly across an overcrowded factory floor. Young women workers scrambled to escape and found only locked or inadequate exits. Firefighters were powerless to help because their ladders couldn’t reach beyond the fifth floor.


“Nearly one hundred years later, in December 2010, the exact same scene was repeated at the Hameem factory in Dhaka, leaving 29 workers dead.”

In fact the conditions at the facilities and the treatment of the mostly female workers portray a depressing parallel. In both the Triangle and Hameem fires, exit doors were locked, fire fighters were unable to reach upper floors where workers were trapped and workers were forced to jump to their deaths. One difference: in today’s dollars the young women at Triangle earned $25.44 for an eight-hour shift. The young women who died at Hameen were earning just $2.24 a day. That means that 100 years after the Triangle fire, "garment workers in Bangladesh earn just one tenth as much as the Triangle workers did in 1911," according to the Institute for Global Labour & Human Rights.

The Hameen deaths are regrettable enough, Itschert said, but the problem of unsafe working conditions is hardly limited to this manufacturer. “Over the past five years alone, some 150 workers have died in [factory disasters] in the garment industry in the country. Similar tragedies have occurred elsewhere throughout the global garment industry, notably in China and Thailand. All of these tragedies are eerily similar and all could have been prevented by safe working practices.

“The Triangle factory led to rapid growth of the International Ladies Garment Workers’ Union and the introduction of tougher new laws," Itschert said. "In Bangladesh and elsewhere, workers continue to be denied the right to organize and bargain collectively and are thus being denied the right to play a role in promoting health and safety. We must learn from the legacy of the Triangle factory fire and ensure this changes.”

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MaryAnn O'Donnell
8 years ago
Now this article brought bitter tears. Thank you "America" for brining this out in such a wonderful way. We must be reminded day after day after day and keep a list of these companies that make these "cheap?" clothes. We have all read this before, if you read a magazine or newspaper you must know this. The situation will not get better until we act together and this past few weeks we certainly have evidence our government doesn't care. Wake up people, care so much you can't sleep until the world changes.
8 years ago
Thank you so much for bringing this to our attention. 
Vince Killoran
8 years ago
A good article, and an opportunity to bring in the notion of the "living wage"-it's an important part of Catholic social teaching and a very real way to address "the hidden cost."  When employers chisel their employees and pay low wages, few if any benefits, and keep unsafe working conditions we all pay in terms of homelessness, crowded public hospital emergency rooms, etc.

The living wage for a family of four has been pegged at around $45,000 p.a.
Anne Chapman
7 years 12 months ago
The women and children in third world countries who are the ''Triangle'' workers of today are out of sight, and out of mind for most Americans.  We are used to inexpensive everything - food, clothing, shoes, etc.  Our closets are bulging, and millions of Americans have so much stuff that they rent storage lockers in warehouses for the overflow. There are several reality TV shows on ''hoarding'' that show Americans literally buried in their own possessions. 

 Perhaps if we paid a fair price for our goods we would be more prudent shoppers and not drown in our own excess.

There are small ways that we can help those who are exploited overseas to provide us with cheap food and clothing - and that is the Fair Trade movement.  There is a lot of information on that at Catholic Relief Services Web site.   You can buy Fair Trade coffee, cocoa and tea in normal retail stores these days, or order from CRS and similar groups. The Fair Trade chocolate that they sell is amazingly good, and a wonderful gift. 

Catholics could begin to help women in Thailand and Mexico by having their schools switch to buying Fair Trade uniforms.  It's a small step, but it's an important one. Only by small steps will we begin to achieve some justice for those far away who keep us in comfort by working under miserable conditions.


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