the audit

A Triangle Shirtwaist-Like Disaster, Buried By the U.S. Press

Outsourcing tragedies while paying a sliver of what our workers made 100 years ago
April 5, 2011

The Consumerist has a fascinating post asking whether we’ve really eliminated our Triangle Shirtwaist Factory disasters or if we’ve just outsourced them.

It turns out that a sweatshop in Bangladesh that made clothes for The Gap, Abercrombie & Fitch, JC Penney, Target, and others, suffered an eerily Triangle-like disaster just a few months ago:

When we noted the 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire on March 25, you might have looked at that and thought, phew, good thing stuff like that isn’t happening anymore. But in developing countries around the world with little to no worker rights and sweatshops paying pennies a day, it is. Like in Bangladesh in December 2010 when 29 workers died after a fire swept through the Hameem garment factory. The workers were trapped inside because guards had been ordered to lock the gates in the event of a fire in order to prevent clothes from being stolen during the confusion. The factory made clothes for GAP.

Consumerist links a video interview of Charles Kernaghan, director of the Institute for Global Labor and Human Rights, who notes the parallels to Triangle, including the locked exits, low wages, and workers leaping to their deaths:

This is going on still in the global economy today. Not one change…

The workers work twelve to fourteen hours a day, seven days a week. They get one day off a month. And they live in abject misery, in miserable hovels that are unimaginable. Bangladesh is now the third-largest exporter in the world of garments to the United States.

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Watch the whole thing:

Of course we shouldn’t take one anecdote in Bangladesh as proof that we have a systemic problem with trade and our economy, but this is hardly an isolated event. One book put the factory-fires death toll at more than 300 from 1990 to 2005. Bangladeshi labor advocates put the toll at 400 just since 2006. But what’s particularly interesting for journalists is how the almost-nonexistent coverage of this story raises serious questions about what we know and how well the press keeps us informed about the consequences of our economy.

I hadn’t heard about the Bangladeshi deaths until this Consumerist post, so I looked through Factiva to see why I had missed it. No wonder: There were four brief stories total for American audiences, one of which was in a trade publication and another of which was in a UK-based paper (there was much more coverage in European and Asian news outlets and some U.S. newspapers ran wire briefs). The New York Times gave it 500 words and never revisited the story once it emerged which American companies had outsourced production there.

Women’s Wear Daily, the fashion industry’s newspaper, went with the back-to-business angle for its first story on the disaster:

DHAKA, Bangladesh— Production at a sportswear factory here where at least 31 apparel workers were killed and 200 seriously injured on Tuesday will resume on Saturday, senior officials of the factory said Wednesday, while the government investigates the cause of the blaze and inspects safety systems.

The Financial Times wrote this lede a few days later:

Western clothing brands are having to confront the dismal safety record of Bangladesh’s garment industry after 26 workers died last week in a factory fire.

The Associated Press did best. Here was its lede:

Dozens of people were killed after a devastating blaze raced through a garment factory that supplies major multinationals such as Gap and JCPenney near Bangladesh’s capital on Tuesday.

Nobody, at least in Factiva (and I should note that it doesn’t include every news source) results, reported how little the Bangladeshi workers earned.

Kernaghan says workers at Triangle made 14 cents an hour in 1911 (or $3.18 today). At Bangladesh’s Hameen factory, workers made, at most, 28 cents an hour. Let that sink in for a minute. Kernaghan:

Their wages in Bangladesh today are one-tenth what wages were in the United States one hundred years ago. We’re racing to the bottom.

I’ve talked before about how so-called free trade is all about arbitrage: Environmental arbitrage. Labor arbitrage. Regulatory arbitrage. Tax arbitrage.

Press arbitrage is no small factor, either. How disastrous would the PR have been for The Gap, Abercrombie, et al, if the factory with locked exits that killed twenty-nine workers sewing our clothes had been in the U.S. and not in Dhaka?

Think about that the next time you’re walking into The Gap, much less reporting a story on it.

Ryan Chittum is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, and deputy editor of The Audit, CJR’s business section. If you see notable business journalism, give him a heads-up at Follow him on Twitter at @ryanchittum.