People Are Products, History Proves It

How much is too much? The cost of ethical fashion or the cost of women’s and children’s lives?

Three years ago today, April 15, 2010, a huge truck bomb exploded where I worked in Kandahar, Afghanistan. I was luckier than some of my colleagues because I survived with only minor injury. Five men I served with still struggle with serious life-altering injuries. Five others were burned alive and completely consumed by the massive fireball that erupted upon explosion.

Attached to a group of development workers aiding the people and programs in districts, schools, health clinics, universities and government buildings of a war-torn country, I watched that huge ball of fire as it rose up from the exploded truck burning just 50 feet away. Having been there, I can’t imagine, not even in a bad dream, what it must have been like to burn to death in that fire.

While we expect such risks in war-torn nations, we may not know that destructive fires like that claim the lives of hundreds of garment workers who stitch the clothing we purchase from companies every year: companies who have yet to improve on poor safety regulations that should have been eradicated 100 years ago. Take the case of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire in New York…

March 25, 1911 – One of the deadliest industrial disasters in history swept New York City as a fire burned violently through every floor of a garment factory, leaving 146  workers dead from fire, smoke inhalation, and/or jumping to their deaths. Most victims were young women between the ages of 16 and 23. It was the fourth worst industrial accident in U.S. history and the second deadliest disaster in New York City history, until the World Trade Center destruction on 9-11.

Of note: The factory’s managers had locked the doors to the stairwells and exits – a common practice to prevent theft by factory workers. Since workers could not escape the burning building, they resorted to jumping from all floors. Factory owners Max Blanck and Isaac Harris, who survived the fire, were indicted on charges of first- and second-degree manslaughter in mid-April that year. Eventually legislation improved factory safety standards in the U.S. and spurred the beginning of the International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union seeking better working conditions.

Fast forward: One hundred years later, fire ripped through another clothing factory on November 25, 2012, this one near the capital of Dhaka, Bangladesh, killing at least 117 people, most of whom were women. As the fire began, over 2,000 people were inside the factory. Officials said rescue operations were difficult because the building was packed with fabrics, yarn and cotton. Plus, the panicked workers discovered that emergency exits were locked, therefore they were forced to jump out of the multi-story building to escape the flames.

Two disasters —100 years apart — yet the stories are almost identical. Over the last 100 years, factory fires have raged on, killing hundreds, possibly thousands, of unaccounted for workers across the world.

In recent decades, US garment companies have shifted jobs to lower-cost operations in Mexico, the Caribbean, and across Asia, and the same dangerous working conditions Americans experienced a century ago have also cropped up abroad. According to Bangladesh’s Fire Service and Civil Defense Department, more than 210 factory fires claimed the lives of more than 400 garment workers in three years alone.

Robert Ross, Ph.D. Director of International Studies Stream and Professor of Sociology at Clark University in Worcester, Mass said, “Effectively what we have done is exported our sweatshops and exported our factory fires…. And it’s as if the 1911 conditions had been lifted up by an evil hand and dropped into Bangladesh. And the pattern is disturbingly uniform,” noted Ross. “The shops are often in high-rise buildings, just like the Triangle.”

Today, Bangladesh houses roughly 4,500 garment factories. They account for 80% of the nation’s $24 billion in annual exports — most of which are ready-made clothing shipped to stores such as Tesco, Wal-Mart, J.C. Penney, H&M, Marks & Spencer, Kohl’s and Carrefour.

Manufacturers — and the department stores that buy from them — are fully aware of these factory fires and the unfair working conditions, such as locked emergency exits.

Just as I can’t begin to imagine what its like to burn in a fire, I also can’t imagine how corporate moguls can ignore the plight of garment workers who create their goods. In fact, it’s their business to know because they make millions upon millions of dollars selling huge quantities of supposedly “affordable” clothing that is produced in these unsafe factories.

But who decides what affordable is? Can the garment workers afford their losses? Can we afford what affordable clothing means? Maybe it’s time to re-tool our minds so we can help put out the factory fires ourselves. Would you, if you could? I’ve already begun.

We can work together on this by consciously re-directing our purchasing decisions and our buying dollars. Start by seeking out “ethical fashion” products brought to market at a fair price for the artisans who create them. Sadly, most garment workers, some of whom are children, toil in dangerous, slave-like conditions. Buying from ethically-positioned clothing companies and/or charitable projects dedicated to helping artisans and designers from all walks of life, will help bring quality products to the market for a fair-trade price.

Try purchasing clothing from artisans who design and produce amazing hand-crafted products, instead of browsing through hundreds of items mass produced by companies literally turning a blind eye to factory workers and their plights.

We can afford to be fair. We learned how in kindergarten.

Designers and artisans painstakingly create their crafts for our pleasure. In return for their time, talents, and countless hours of effort, we can think about the value in those products and pay a fair price. When we pay fairly for clothing and other accessories, the designers and artisans can actually profit, and in turn, purchase more threads, beads, fabrics and textiles to continue producing their specially-designed fashions. In the end, everyone benefits. The artisan survives and we wear notably high-quality, uniquely-designed fashion.

When we don’t care about the lives of the artisans who craft our clothing, history writes the story. Will you right it with me? I hops so, and I’ll ask you again, how much is too much? The few dollars added to the cost of ethical fashion or the cost of women’s and children’s lives? — Brenda Steele MacCrimmon, Joel Worldwear

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