On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out at the Triangle Waist Company in New York. Over 500 employees were in the building, mostly young women who had newly immigrated to America. The fire escape collapsed, dropping many to their deaths. A critical exit was locked. People on the street watched as workers jumped out of windows. Even when fire trucks arrived, their ladders only reached the sixth floor of the nine story building.
146 people died.
The tragic events became a rallying cry for the international labor movement. In fact, many of our fire safety laws were created in response to the Triangle Waist Company fire.
Here in North America, workers’ rights have come a long way in the century since, but last week’s eerily similar blaze in a factory in Karachi, Pakistan serves as a reminder that there is still much to fight for when it comes to ensuring safe working conditions around the world.
Last week’s fire, the deadliest industrial accident in Pakistan’s 65 year history, left 289 people dead. The fire began when flames from a boiler explosion ignited chemicals and stacks of cloth.
Much like the Triangle Waist blaze, employees had few chances to escape. Every exit save one was locked, windows were barred. Workers threw sewing machines at windows, while others leapt from the top floors of the four-story building.
Protests followed, calling on strengthened regulations and adequate enforcement in Pakistan’s manufacturing industry. Karachi, a city of 20 million, is home to more than 12,000 factories. Buildings regularly lack fire alarms and sprinklers, exits are often blocked, and thousands of workers employed as casual labor are not insured for accidents.
Asif Ali Zardari, the president of Pakistan, has ordered an investigation into the incident, and the owners of Ali Enterprises, which ran the facility, have been barred from leaving the country. Pakistani police have filed murder charges against them.
“These deaths could and should have been avoided,” Ineke Zeldenrust, international coordinator for the Clean Clothes Campaign, said in a statement following the accident. “Emergency exits were absent or locked, and workers were trapped. This is the usual pattern: it is well-known that many workplaces are unsafe, and that workers in key producing countries risk their lives on a daily basis producing clothes for Europe and the USA.”
It’s sad that this lesson needed to be learned again, over a century after the Triangle Waist fire. I hope this tragic event will leave a similar legacy, creating urgency for change of the countries labor laws.