The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire & The Bangladesh Building Collapse

May 13, 2013 § Leave a comment


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Above is a Benetton ad with a rainbow coalition of models set in a grid surrounding the first sentence of the 1st article of the declaration of human rights—a campaign launched to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the declaration in March of 1998. The entire article reads: “Human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”Below it is an Benetton ad, and it should be obvious what is happening there. Below that is a photo of a Benetton shirt made in the Bangladesh factory collapse.

So, during my amazing weekend with friends, building a deck for our wedding… we got to catch up a bunch…  One of the topics of conversation that came up a couple of times was the building collapse in Bangladesh, where astonishingly the death toll has risen to over 1000 people. It is amazing to me that even after an event like this, news coverage talks about a ‘balance’ between the necessity of economic development and human safety (i.e. human LIFE). I’m so sick of hearing how regulations impinge upon the creation of jobs and the good work of ‘job creators.’ Maybe we can start talking plain old fairness again.

The minimum wage for garment workers in Bangladesh is $37/ month.

Benetton made clothes in this factory.  F***ing Benneton!!!!!  This was the company that funded COLORS magazine… As a young high school student I was drawn in by the arresting images and full bleed layouts of cultures, the varied human condition, and the conditions humans were living in around the world. The following quote is from Olivier Toscani, who founded the magazine along with graphic design icon Tibor Kalman.

“We set up Colors as a way of communicating the intelligence of the Benetton brand to an extremely sophisticated consumer. That consumer doesn’t respond so well to traditional advertising. Colors is a real magazine about the rest of the world, but it’s also a way of marketing the ideological commitment of the Benetton company.”

I guess we are all aware of these contradictions… maybe there are so many it’s starting to all sound like grey noise. Let’s compare what’s happened in Bangladesh to the Triangle shirtwaist fire where 146 workers tragically died in a factory fire.  In 1911 the rapidly developing country of the United States had to face the grim realities of ‘progress’—many of New York’s citizens filed past coffins placed on display (this was set up for the purposes of identification, though many more just came to see) in front of the building that many of them died in.  This turned into what was essentially a huge public wake, for women who were now less invisible, less anonymous. We don’t have an equivalent experience for this event. I haven’t seen very many photos of bodies… something I think we all need to see—far more than we need to see the rainbow of faces celebrating a notional ‘diversity,’ and an apparent ‘ideological commitment’ to human rights. It doesn’t take a genius here to understand how absolutely and tragically ridiculous this all is. 

The Triangle Shirtwaist fire resulted in meaningful changes in the regulation of manufacturing conditions, and in the enforcement of the laws thenceforth governing those conditions. It resulted in the galvanization of unions—especially women’s unions. The problems of governance are of course far more complicated in this instance because we are talking about clothes here almost entirely produced for a foreign market, by multi-national companies. It seems, that as consumers the most we can ask for is supply chain transparency… (see below). I can only hope labor organization has more room to breathe in Bangladesh now that this has happened. Life depends on it. How will whatever small reserve of outrage we have left help to transform this situation? For one, I will be reading clothing labels every single time I buy an article of clothing, not that I didn’t already—and not that I shop that often… but I will be more wary of or curious about countries of origin that I am less familiar with, (e.g. did anyone ever notice how many clothes are made in Moldova?).  I will also do some extra research on global supply chains, which is made at least a bit easier because of California’s transparency in supply chains act (made effective January 2012).  There’s much more to say about this, of course, but I wanted to put this here as a placeholder for now.

The globalization of capital is not the same as capital’s universalization. 


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