Saturday, March 25, 2006

Triangle Shirtwaist: Exporting Our Tragedies

Today is the ninety-fifth anniversary of the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist fire that killed 140 workers who had “burned, fallen from the collapsing fire escapes or jumped to their deaths.” Author Katherine Webber, writing in today’s New York Times, describes the events of that tragic day, but adds another perspective that is usually forgotten: Many of the dead – and no one knows the exact figure – were children as young as 11, and possibly younger.

Although the official list of those killed “include one 11-year old, two 14-year olds, and 14 17-year olds,” the question remains: “Were the ages of workers, living and dead, modified to finesse the habitual violation of child labor laws in 1911?” We may never know how many young children were among the six unidentified victims, or other victims whose ages may have been falsified.

We’ve come a long way since 1911. No longer do we lock small children into sweatshops (although we don’t seem to have quite gotten beyond locking grown-up workers into their buildings.)

But much of the rest of the world is still living in that period: crowded and unsafe conditions, locked exits, hundreds of undocumented female workers as young as 12, a deadly fire.” Weber describes how we will never know how many children were killed in the 1993 fire at the Kadar Industrial Toy Company in Thailand (a supplier of Hasbro and Fischer Price) that killed 188 workers, or the 2000 Chowdhury Knitware fire in Bangladesh (contracted by Wal-Mart and the Gap) where 52 died behind locked doors and at least 10 were under the age of 14. Nor will we ever know how many children died just last month at the KTS Composite Textile factory fire in Bangladesh where 84 workers may have been killed.

Things may be better here at home,
But as long as we don’t question the source of the inexpensive clothing we wear, as long as we don’t wonder about the children in those third world factories who make the inexpensive toys we buy our won children, those fires ill occur and young girls and boys will continue to die. They won’t die because of natural catastrophes like monsoons and earthquakes; they will die because it has become our national habit to outsource, and these days we outsource our tragedies too.