factories

♦ Ireland’s head of state says the EU must drop its “hegemonic” economic model and reform the ECB, or risk social upheaval and a loss of popular legitimacy.
♦ The Great Tax Race series turns to Ireland, looking at how Ireland has remained attached to aggressive tax policies that favour businesses even as ordinary people have struggled to get by. (If you’re trying to get your head around how all of this even works, watch this handy explainer from Matt Steinglass)
♦ Richard McGregor thinks President Obama needs to circumvent Congress if he wants to get his agenda moving.
♦ Western clothing companies are scrambling to address public concerns over working conditions in Bangladesh – the Walt Disney Company ordered an end to the production of branded merchandise in the country before Rana Plaza collapsed. John Gapper today makes the argument against western companies withdrawing: “Despite everything, the industry provides better-paid jobs than the alternative – working on rural farms – and has helped to emancipate women.”
♦ Despite violence and corruption, Afghan entrepreneurs are still making opportunities for themselves.
♦ The Kremlin is putting pressure on VKontakte, a Russian Facebook clone, pushing CEO Pavel Durov to leave the country.
♦ Slate is publishing a series of excerpts from the memoirs of Mohamedou Oul Slahi who was a prisoner at Guantánamo for nearly 11 years.
♦ Mafia historian goes underground into the bunkers of the Ndrangheta, Europe’s biggest cocaine traffickers and Italy’s most powerful organised crime group.
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♦ The collapse of Rana Plaza this week and the fire at Tazreen Fashions last year have raised questions about the Bangladeshi government’s ability to regulate its garment industry, and the intimate ties between this industry and the country’s political elite.
♦ President Obama is pushing to overhaul the US immigration system, giving some of the 11m unauthorised residents legal rights and the economy a much needed boost.
♦ A growing sense among Guantánamo prisoners that they will never go home, has led to a revolt: a hunger strike is now in its third month with more than half the inmates participating. Read more

Esther Bintliff

Fire at Albion Mill, Blackfriars Bridge, London, March 1791. Painting by T. Rowlandson

Fire at Albion Mill, Blackfriars, London,1791. Painting by T. Rowlandson

The history of mass manufacturing is stitched through with accidents and peril. The first factories, which powered the industrial revolution in 18th century Britain, brought death and injury to many workers, including children. Mill fires in the UK were so common that some industrialists bought their own steam fire-engines in an effort to bring down insurance premiums.

The factory model spread fast. By the 19th century, the word ‘sweatshop’ had begun to enter popular parlance, with Charles Kingsley referring to ‘sweaters’ – or garment workers – in his 1850 tract ‘Cheap Clothes & Nasty’ (“Men ought to know the condition of those by whose labour they live”, he warned). Meanwhile, in the US:

“The term ‘sweatshop’… was meant to describe “sweated labor,” work that a big clothing manufacturer contracts out to a smaller firm… The labor was “sweated” because of the conditions of the factories – cramped, crowded, and full of damp heat from the steam-driven pressers.” – Bill Buford, ‘Sweat is Good’, The New Yorker

How did things get better? Safety standards encoded in law, industrial design improvements, the growth of unions, and public outrage helped bring change to the factories of western economies. But all too often, the impetus for reform seemed to require the catalyst of a terrible accident.

Today, the majority of factory accidents (though not all) take place in the developing and newly industrialized world – places like Bangladesh, Pakistan, China and India. The death of more than 200 people this week in a factory on the outskirts of Daka is a challenge both to the Bangladeshi government, and to western retailers.

The cost of change, to some observers, seems prohibitive – but if passed on to western consumers, it might actually be tiny. Jason Motlagh and Susie Taylor report: “An analysis by WRC estimates the garment industry would have to spend some $3 billion over five years to bring Bangladesh’s roughly 4,500 factories up to Western standards. That amounts to less than 10 cents a garment.”

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Here are five of the worst factory accidents. There are many, many more. You will notice that we’ve focused on recent decades, but only because these were the best documented online. You may also notice that there are certain factors that the worst incidents have in common. The most frequent is locked doors.

1) May 25, 1911: The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, New York

Firefighters at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, March 25, 1911. Photographer: Brown BrothersDeath toll: 146 people, mostly Jewish and Italian immigrants, mostly women.

The owners of Triangle Shirtwaist, Isaac Harris and Max Blanck, were indicted by a grand jury on charges of manslaughter a few weeks after the fire. You can read a transcript of the proceedings of the case via Cornell University. The chief prosecutor, Assistant District Attorney Charles S. Bostwick, pulled no punches.

“Others ran to the Washington place door. One of these was Margaret Schwartz, now dead. And it is for her death that these defendants are now on trial.

Gentlemen of the jury, that door was locked. Those who ran to that door cried out ‘That door is locked. My God, we are lost.’ They were lost. That locked door barred their escape.”

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