The recent clothing factory tragedy in Bangladesh brings back memories of a similar situation a century ago. My mother came to America with her family then as a ten-year-old. After just two years in school, along with many other girls her age, she went to work in a clothing factory.
Similarity Of Now To Then The mostly-immigrant girls in 1911 were employed under sweatshop conditions similar to those of the young women in the Bangladeshi building. The workers of a century ago were paid almost the same wages, about a dollar a day for ten hours of work. The conditions then as now were in jammed, badly ventilated, dirty spaces and prone to disaster.
While the world learns more sad details of the Bangladesh clothing factory building collapse of April 24, more than three weeks later the death toll had risen to more than a thousand, mostly young women. On March 25, 1911, a high-rise fire in the Triangle Shirtwaist factory in New York City resulted in the deaths of 146 garment workers, also mostly young women.
Why The Death Toll It was the shoddily constructed building collapse that killed the Bangladeshi workers. The 1911 disaster was caused by a fire that started on a pile of rags on the wooden floors. Because the New York factory owners wanted to prevent theft, all the fire escape doors were locked from the outside. Employees who didn’t burn to death were killed when they jumped from the 10-story building’s windows. My mother knew many of them, because they had also come to America from the same European villages.
Result Of The Disasters: Unions After much debate following the Bangladesh disaster, the country’s government recently announced that garment factory workers were permitted to form unions. This also reminded me of my mother’s career in the industry.
As a result of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire, a union was created to protect workers. It was named the International Ladies Garment Workers Union (ILGWU). Its efforts through the years have resulted in safer factory conditions, fair wages, medical coverage, retirement plans and other benefits.
My mother continued working in the industry until she married to raise a family. My father died at age 32 during the Great Depression, leaving her with three small children. She had to return to work in a clothing factory.
Rising through the ranks to management during the next 30 years, she was always a proud member of ILGWU. I believe she would encourage the young Bangladesh workers to support their new union.