The devastating factory fire at Tazreen Fashions on the outskirts of Dhaka, Bangladesh, made global news. Most of the 112 or more who perished in the Nishchintapur inferno were young women. Fifty-two were buried unidentified. The spectacle of the scorched bodies of poor women, who built the backbone of cheap labour that made Bangladesh a global powerhouse in readymade garments, seems to have shaken the conscience of the world.
“The victims who are now lying at the morgue waiting for someone to identify them by a tooth or the remains of a burned shoe were mostly girls from 16 to 23 years of age.”
“Doors were locked say rescued girls.”
“Blame shifted on all sides for fire horror.”
These headlines did not depict the Nishchintapur tragedy; they were the New York Times headlines in the wake of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on Saturday, March 25, 1911, at Washington Place in Lower Manhattan, New York. Of the 146 dead, 129 were poor young women, aged between 16 and 23. The tragedy galvanized Americans.
There is an uncanny resemblance between the fires in Washington Place and Nishchintapur. They occurred on the 25th day of the month, and over the weekend in the evening, as the factory workers were about to call it a day, unaware of a looming tragedy. Both factories were typical industrial building blocks of 9–10 stories, reportedly with faulty interior organization.
The young women who perished in the Triangle inferno were mostly poor Jewish, Italian, and Russian immigrants, supporting distant families. In Nishchintapur, they hailed from impoverished villages. Like their unfortunate counterparts in New York a hundred years ago, the young Bangladeshi women were merely trying to eke out a minimal existence in a crowded city, and support the families they left behind in rural areas.
In both cases survivors claimed that exit doors were locked, a “standard” practice to prevent workers from leaving the factory premise with stolen goods. The managements of both factories claimed to possess all the required fire suppression equipment and emergency fire exits. In both cases the reality was the opposite.
Ironic names were common to both. The Triangle victims found their final resting place in the Cemetery of the Evergreens (that froze the young women in history). In the latter, the scorched bodies left Nishchintapur (“the place of no worries”!) to begin their eternal journey.
It is astounding to see how the tragic drama of the Triangle fire was replayed in Nishchintapur a hundred years later, with the same kind of disregard for the lives of the workers who keep the wheel of the industry moving.
History has a peculiar propensity to remember more of what happens after a tragedy than the tragedy itself. Like other tragedies in Bangladesh, the Nishchintapur fire is slowly fading from the local media. So too is the urgency to fix the factory problems that result in gruesome deaths.
This is where the Triangle fire could be a lesson in post-tragedy activism in Bangladesh.
The Triangle fire became a landmark event in the American history of labour rights and worker’s safety regulations. A New York legislative commission was formed in its wake to examine fire regulations, safety in factories, and conditions for working women. The commission was spearheaded by two stalwart politicians, Robert Wagner and Alfred Smith. They channelled the public outcry to create legislations for fire sprinklers, fire drills, and outward swinging doors. These legislations eventually led to a bill limiting weekly work hours to 54 without overtime. By 1914, the commission’s work was instrumental in producing 36 new laws related to labour code and workplace safety.
The New York commission’s breakthrough undertaking yielded a variety of results. It brought Wagner and Smith to national prominence. Wagner went on to become a U.S. Senator and Smith, a New York Governor. A 30-year-old woman and labour rights activist named Francis Perkins, who watched with desperation as young women jumped to their deaths during the Triangle fire, also joined the commission and later became America’s first female cabinet member, Secretary of Labor, under President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Years later she claimed that many of the labour laws of New Deal America were “based really upon the experiences we had had in New York state and upon the sacrifices of those who, we faithfully remember with affection and respect, died in that terrible fire on March 25, 1911.”
The Triangle fire also played a role in the creation of the first zoning ordinance in the U.S. in 1916. This ordinance became a powerful tool to regulate the ways land was used (which would be Detailed Area Plan in Bangladesh) and to determine building size and use, effectively controlling the density of the city. The fire also revitalized the women’s rights to movement in America. Nine years after the fire American women won the right to vote.
Historians, too, never let go of the tragedy. A dogged historian named Michael Hirsch discovered recently the names of the six remaining unknown victims of the Triangle fire, just in time for the centennial of their sacrifice at the altar of industrial prosperity. All of them were young women buried in a single grave in the Cemetery of the Evergreens. Books have been written and films have been made too. David von Drehle’s book Triangle: The Fire That Changed America (2003) and the PBS film Triangle Fire (directed by Jamila Wignot) are noteworthy.
That the tragedy of the Triangle fire was replicated with eerie similarities 100 years later on the other side of the planet raises existential and Darwinist questions. Must developing economies repeat the same mistakes and excesses of industrialized nations? Do all nations have to go through the same cycle of disasters and absurdities before they come to their senses and develop laws that protect the less fortunate, along with the rest?
No, they don’t, if retail giants like Walmart re-invest a tiny fraction of their profit in the safe environment of the factories in which poor workers sew and stitch their global corporate empire. The desire to take advantage of cheap labour must be coupled with corporate ethical responsibility and real investment in accountable factory inspection systems. It is no exaggeration to say that in the tragedy of Nishchintapur, Walmart and other international buyers of Bangladeshi apparel are as much responsible as Tazreen Fashions. It will take only a few conscientious consumers in the U.S. to initiate a mass boycott of the affordable pants and sweaters sold in Walmart if these items continue to hide a chronic history of sweatshop miseries.
Meanwhile, the apparel industry in Bangladesh must reinvent itself with a simple philosophy. Everybody has a right to life. People can’t be locked in when an inferno is devouring a factory dependent on their hard labour. Yes, we need progress and factory owners must make a profit. But the pretext that the workers would steal in times of chaos is too animalistic. Let’s humanize the power of money.
Adnan Morshed is Associate Professor of Architecture and Planning at the Catholic University of America, Washington, DC, and the author of Oculus: A Decade of Insights into Bangladeshi Affairs (2012).