Who’s Running for the Exit Now?

On Sunday, November 25, 2012, we witnessed a terrible tragedy in the garment district of Dhaka in Bangladesh, a fire in a nine story garment factory that killed more than 100 people. After hearing about this fire and the descriptions of what happened, I couldn’t help but think of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City, a fire that occurred in a ten story building over 100 years ago on March 25, 1911. The descriptions of exits being blocked, supervisors telling the workers that nothing was wrong and finally people jumping out of the building in an attempt to save themselves were all reminiscent of the fire in New York City that took the lives of 146 people, most of them young women.

It made me think… What have we learned in the last hundred years, and how could this happen again in similar circumstances more than 100 years later? Many labor laws were changed after the Triangle Factory fire, and New York vowed that this would never happen again.  But is history now repeating itself “offshore” where safety regulations and working conditions harken back to the early 20th century? Recent reports coming out of Dhaka state sabotage as a possible cause for the fire, but that doesn’t explain why exit doors were locked or blocked, why fire extinguishers did not work and more. As retailers like Walmart “run for the exits” and try to distance themselves from this tragedy (despite the fact that Walmart-brand clothes were found at the site of the fire), we are reminded again that ultimately, the cost of the goods alone is not the bottom line when making a purchase.

Retailers need to know, first and foremost, who is making their products (whether it be a supplier or subcontractor); secondly, that their products are being made in safe and humane working conditions; and thirdly, that all their workers — from the American workers selling products for retailers like Walmart to the workers like those in the Dhaka factories who make the actual products — have safe working conditions and are being paid a living wage that include benefits.

We all hold the power to make changes, and ultimately we can hold retailers accountable for not only producing products under safe conditions but for paying the workers a living wage and providing affordable healthcare and other essential benefits. If that means paying around 15 cents more per shopping trip, well, I'm more than happy to pony up for justice.