The fire at the Tazreen Fashions factory in Bangladesh on 24 November 2012 revived old memories. Fire-prone workshops, locked emergency exits to make surveillance easier, workers jumping from windows to escape the flames, survivors denied justice: the same things happened a century ago in Manhattan.
On the afternoon of 25 March 1911 a fire broke out at the Triangle Shirtwaist Company, a garment manufacturer which employed some 500 workers, mainly young women from Jewish and Italian immigrant backgrounds, who received a dollar a day — still the going rate a century later for Bangladeshi workers. The eighth, ninth and tenth floors of the building were soon engulfed by flames. As the management had instructed the emergency exits should be locked, the trapped workers died either at their posts or jumping from the windows. “I learned a new sound that day,” wrote journalist William G Shepherd, “a sound more horrible than description can picture: the thud of a speeding living body on a stone sidewalk.” One hundred and forty-six people died in the fire, which remains the worst industrial accident in the city’s history.
If the similarities between Tazreen and Triangle struck people in both Dhaka and New York, it was not just because of the fate suffered by vulnerable, deracinated young women, in one case immigrants and in the other rural migrants. It was also because of the thick skins of the owners of the companies involved: the owner of the Tazreen factory has benefited from the same immunity as his two predecessors in New York, who were found innocent after having pocketed the insurance money.
But the two cases differ in one major respect: the Tazreen disaster hasn’t had any impact on power relations in Bangladesh, whereas the Triangle case sparked a massive mobilisation of workers and led to the passing of several landmark laws aimed at making the workplace safer. In 1911, New York was the US’s biggest supplier of garments; today, Dhaka is the sewing machine of rich nations across the world. This difference of scale may partly explain why the same causes have not produced the same effects. According to economist Anu Mohammed, “Bangladesh is living under the reign of the primitive accumulation of capital coupled with the firepower of the globalised economy.” The victims of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company could have hoped for a better legacy.