Remembering Yesterday’s Workers, Protecting Workers Today

On March 25, 100 years ago, a fire started in a rag bin at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in the garment district of Manhattan. The fire swept through the eighth, ninth, and tenth floors, too high for fire ladders to reach.

Inside, hundreds of women and children sewed garments. They worked 10 to 12 hours a day, seven days a week. “If you don’t come in on Sunday,” the sign read, “you need not come back on Monday.”

The doors to each floor were locked. The workers were trapped. Hundreds of workers, mostly immigrant women and young girls, their clothes and hair ablaze, threw themselves off window ledges onto the streets below. One hundred and forty-six Triangle workers were burned or crushed to death.

The outcry was immediate. One hundred thousand people marched in the memorial parade down Broadway. Workers began signing up for unions. Reformers demanded laws to regulate workplaces.

But it took decades, scarred by many more fires, and many more tragedies, before sensible labor standards were enacted and enforced. Core labor rights became part of the framework of the American market, contributing directly to building the broad middle class that is the hallmark of our democracy.

The Triangle fire may seem like a bygone age, yet hauntingly similar tragedies have taken place over the last century and continue today. In 1993, the worst industrial fire in history broke out at a huge toy company outside Bangkok, Thailand. Again, the fire exits were blocked and the doors locked. The workers were trapped. Women jumped from upper story windows. And on that day, 188 workers were killed, 469 seriously injured. The tragedy shook the nation, and unions subsequently forced changes in Thai labor laws to protect workers.

In 2007, 37 workers were killed and 19 injured when a fire broke out at an unlicensed shoe factory in China. Last year, several fires occurred in factories throughout Bangladesh, including one in December that killed at least 25 garment workers and injuring dozens more in a factory outside Dhaka that manufactures clothes for western retailers. Prior to that, in February, a clothing factory fire in the same area killed 21 and injured dozens of others.

As detailed annually in the State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices, violations of worker rights and workplace casualties remain far too common in the production of goods we consume daily — in apparel sweatshops, mines, construction sites, and farms. As global supply chains increasingly produce and transport goods across the world, we need to help our trading partners to learn and apply the lessons from the Triangle fire.

These tragedies help us place where we are — and where we need to go. Now more than ever, we need to move forward to ensure that global supply chains reflect our values — including the dignity of work, equal opportunity for all workers, an end to forced labor, and the right of people to organize and bargain on their own behalf. These are not just the foundations for core labor rights; they are grounded in human rights, proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which the United States has championed.

As the Triangle tragedy revealed, these basic rights provide essential protections for workers. They — and the independent free trade unions that they protect — are also vital in ensuring that the benefits of growing productivity are widely shared and help to build markets for U.S. exports. And, as we have witnessed across the world, from Solidarnosc (Solidarity) in Poland to recent events in Egypt, independent free trade unions are vital building blocks of democratic movements.

The Obama Administration has made strengthening worker rights within the rules governing the global marketplace central to its mission. The Administration has committed to ensuring that protections for workers are negotiated in trade accords, and that foreign governments receiving U.S. trade benefits enforce worker rights in practice. Through targeted technical cooperation and determined labor diplomacy, administration efforts also assist countries in improving their labor laws and building the capacity of civil society organizations to defend worker rights.

As in the United States, enacting and enforcing global labor standards is not a quick and easy process. While worker rights have been accepted universally in principle, they are still contested in practice. For the United States, championing core labor rights internationally serves both our values and our interests.

A measure of our progress will come as tragedies like the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire are remembered as part of our collective past, not as horrors revisited in the present.

For further information, please contact: Labor@state.gov.

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