NEW YORK — Tragic as the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire was, the most definitive moment of Thursday’s all-day symposium honoring its centennial was an impromptu exercise that reminded guests just how far removed they are from the factories that produce the clothes they wear.
During an afternoon session about “The Global Sweatshop,” attendees were asked to read the label on their neighbor’s clothing and then shout out the name of the country where it was made. Suddenly cries of “El Salvador,” “China,” “Sri Lanka,” “Italy,” “Bangladesh,” “Ukraine” and other far-off places were bandied about the auditorium. The audience participation was considerably lower, close to nil, in fact, when the crowd was asked to indicate by a show of hands how many had visited the country where their garments were made or if they knew anything about the factory that produced it.
The fact that the question was posed by a former sweatshop-worker-turned-activist only enhanced the poignancy. The speaker, Kalpona Akter, secretary general and executive director of the Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity, then proceeded to tell the audience how she started working in a sweatshop at the age of 12 to support her family, and earned $3.30 a month for 208 hours of work. “You are spending that much money on two large coffees here,” she said.
Noting how last year 30 workers were killed in a factory fire in Bangladesh and 21 others died in another, Akter said, “We are not in 2011 — we are in 1911, like it was during the Triangle Shirtwaist fire.”
There was no shortage of activists, union leaders and other concerned citizens attending the 21 discussions that made up “Out of the Smoke and the Flame: The Triangle Shirtwaist Fire and Its Legacy” at CUNY’s Fifth Avenue location. Discussing “Workers’ Resistance in the Chinese Sweatshop,” Ching Kwan Lee, a University of California sociologist who specializes in Chinese labor relations, claimed, “China is one gigantic sweatshop,” citing factory workers’ testimonials of seven-day workweeks, 14-hour days, and the lack of organizing rights and bargaining power. With more Chinese operations shifting their production to other parts of the world, she said she recently visited a factory in Zambia with sweatshop conditions. Lee said, “The question for all of us here today is: As Chinese capital goes global, will Chinese sweatshops go with it?”
During one of the morning sessions, some speakers said the current proposal for regulations for fair trade clothing are too lenient, so much so that some companies are opting out of the Ethical Trading Initiative because the Fair Trade standards are easier to comply with. Clark University professor Robert Ross, author of “Slaves to Fashion,” said 75 percent of consumers said they would buy sweatshop-free clothes given the opportunity, and 15 to 30 percent actually do.
A few activist groups are leaning on government entities to support nonsweatshop manufacturing. SweatFree Communities is rounding up “many thousands” of petitions to present to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the City Council to ensure that city uniforms are made in sweatshop-free factories, said executive director Bjorn Claeson, between panel discussions. New York State joined the consortium under former governor David Patterson.
“We want to leverage the state and the city’s massive purchasing power. They spend tens of millions of dollars on uniforms,” Claeson said. “Our idea is that if the uniforms are made in factories where workers are treated well, that will help drive up the standards in the garment industry, and it would be a great economic stimulus.”
Another attendee, Ramon Vives, who works for Setem, a non-governmental organization in Barcelona, said he has launched Networkwear, a European nonprofit that is trying to mobilize citizens and cities to change the procurement policy for municipalities’ workwear. By writing guidelines, developing a documentary and launching the Web site Workwear.eu, the group is “trying to convince people and politicians to buy better — to buy clean clothes.” Supporters have been lobbying the European Union to upgrade standards set by the European Commission. “There is a lack of certitude in cities. We have to ask for these things,” Vives said.