The human cost of industrialization

This month, and in September, hundreds of workers were suffocated, burned to death, or leaped to their deaths trying to escape from garment factory fires in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Russia. It is a story that keeps repeating itself, as witness a first-person description of a fire in New York in 1903, which tells of horrors similar to the ones workers experienced in the last couple of months:

…the flames were… blazing fiercely and spreading fast. If we couldn’t get out we would all be roasted alive. The locked door that blocked us was half of wood; the upper half was thick glass. Some girls were screaming, some were beating the door with their fists, some were trying to tear it open.

There were 700 of us girls at the Triangle Waist Company, which had three floors, the eighth, ninth and tenth… On our floor alone there were 230. Most of us were crazy with fear and there was great confusion.

Someone broke out the glass part of the door with something hard and heavy, I suppose the head of a machine and I climbed or was pulled through… Altogether 145 were killed… When the firemen broke open [one] door they found 50 bodies piled up…

In this era of global trade, government regulations are often represented as annoying inhibitors of enterprise. North American and European corporations race to move their manufacturing operations to less regulated environments, such as Pakistan and Bangladesh.

These fires, and the terrible human toll they exact, remind us that entrepreneurs, left to their own devices, will cut costs and increase profit margins by any means available. Their first responsibility is to their shareholders, not their workers or the public. We need government regulation to protect workers and their families from the consequences of an untrammelled pursuit of profit.

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The first-person account of the Triangle fire was reprinted from “First Report of the Tenement House Department of the City of New York” (New York: 1903), pp. 5-7.  Quoted in Planning Commissioners’ Journal 30, Spring 1998, p. 13.

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