Within American labor history, the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire is a touchstone moment. That tragedy led directly to a spate of workplace safety laws and building regulations. In the longer term, it helped spur the union movement that changed the lives of the American working class.
Of course, capitalists never accepted these changes. The movement to globalize industrial production was an explicit choice by corporations to avoid the workplace and environmental regulations that increasing made work and life safe and dignified in the United States. Such regulations might have improved American lives, but they also slightly cut into corporate profits. And with elephants ever more rare, the price of ivory backscratchers aren’t going down.
And thus we see Bangladesh suffer its own Triangle Fire. A clothing factory caught on fire this weekend near Dhaka, killing at least 117 workers. Like at Triangle, most of the dead workers are women. Like at Triangle, an unsafe building choked with highly flammable materials did not have proper safety equipment or fire exits. Like at Triangle, desperate women chose to jump to their deaths rather than burn.
Of course, no corporations will be held directly liable–by outsourcing production, they exact profits and eschew responsibility. Wal-Mart is one of the corporations that contract out with the clothing supplier, but they are refusing to confirm this. Even better for capitalists is that Bangladesh is far away. It will be in the news for a couple of days and then disappear except for the NGOs and labor writers that scream about this to tiny audiences. All things return to normal for global capitalism. And for us.