The problem with sweat shops

by Andrea Elizabeth

Last night PBS aired Triangle Fire (free streaming video available) on their American Experience series. The Triangle Shirtwaist factory wasn’t exactly a sweat shop, since it had 1911 state of the art sewing machines and windows, but it was close. The film focuses mainly on workers’ conditions, but mentions immigration, the American Dream, the American work ethic, overcrowding, industrialization, private enterprise, strikes and unionizing the garment industry, and codes that were enforced after the tragic fire that killed 146 people.

To me the tragedy is in how society at large disregarded the mostly immigrant girls in the first place. This caused people to look away from their plight, believing that at least it was better than where they came from: natural disasters in Italy and persecution of Jews in Russia. Much of their paychecks went to families who were worse off back home. But I don’t see the villain as private ownership in general, as the film implies. They disparage rich businessmen, like Carnegie, even though they mention the libraries, parks, museums and their other contributions. At least they discuss somewhat the problem of insatiable appetites that fueled industry in the first place.

If industry is the problem, and the Old Country wasn’t industrialized, why were the people there starving to death? I guess a non-industrial society is too susceptible to drought, natural disasters, and tyrannical rulers. Turns out those same conditions existed in the Triangle Building. But I believe unions just turn that upside down. I prefer law enforcement to give equal treatment, which they sadly didn’t, so who else did those girls have?

The fact that the stairwell was locked is the particular reason so many perished. The owners kept it locked to prevent theft before the girls could be inspected upon leaving. When they knew of the fire, the owners escaped without unlocking it. This should have been manslaughter and they should have been prosecuted. They were let off. Unions get a foothold where there is corruption. But I also believe outsourcing is the result of corrupt unions. Still, inhuman industrialization is the ultimate source to blame. But it’s all we now know. It’s a mess.

The other issue is feminism and male domination. My first impression is that the tough, powerful men were jerks, and that the factory girls were very feminine with their Gibson hairdos, beautiful shirtwaists and long skirts, which were going out of style. Their saviors were also the wealthy suffragettes who wore mannish jackets and shorter skirts. The modern female commentators, who also champion their cause, had mannish haircuts and style-less blouses. Something is wrong with this picture. Despite the long hours, these girls were experiencing freedom and independence and were putting off marriage, maybe because the reason they had to work was to feed mouths that their parents couldn’t. The idea of a man providing for and ruling his family was losing steam, probably because in the industrial revolution, machines replaced his advantage of greater strength. It made male dominance obsolete.

The other problem that was mentioned was that no one was regulating abuses and safety violations. Perhaps if injurers were prosecuted, thus motivating owners to have safer conditions, unions wouldn’t have gained strength either. So I blame corrupt government more than private owners. And if black people, unborn babies, poor girls, and splayed carriage horses on the ice, were seen as equally human to rich white men (I’m not going to quibble about the humanity of horses), many other abuses would be prevented as well. Since people need authority, I think the government, mainly the judicial system, should protect them equally and send the right message to owners.