Cheap labor comes with a high price
The clothing factory fire that killed 112 Bangladeshis last Saturday is woefully reminiscent of what remains the worst fire in the history of New York City. The Triangle Shirt Waist factory fire on March 25, 1911, killed 146 workers - mostly young women immigrants - in just 18 minutes.
In both cases, emergency exits were locked, supervisors were slow to choose human safety over production quotas, and supposed safety devices were more for show than effectiveness.
Even though the fires were in different countries, it is astounding that they could occur more than a century apart.
There is another particularly disturbing common denominator to the two catastrophes: the clothing under manufacture in both cases was primarily for the American market.
Although the fire was the worst in the history of the Bangladesh apparel industry, it also was one of many. More than 700 Bangladeshi apparel workers have died in fires at work over the last five years. Many of those fires also occurred in factories under contract to American retailers.
Bangladesh has some of the world's lowest wages, with many apparel workers making as little as $37 a month - primary reason that the country has become the world's second largest apparel producer.
As the fires have demonstrated, the country couples those abysmally low wages with some of the world's worst working conditions.
U.S. law requires clothing labels to include garments' country of manufacture, but that is meant primarily to inform consumers that the products are not made in the United States.
U.S. retailers have the power to resolve this issue. Collectively, they could mandate safe working conditions abroad without significantly increasing the price of products.
Consumers are even more powerful, but they have no way of knowing the standards of the factories that produce cheap clothes.
If retailers don't act, the federal government should educate consumers by developing a labeling system that indicates the producing countries' safety protocols for workers.
It took a struggle, but the Triangle fire resulted in sweeping improvements to worker safety in the United States; the Bangladesh fire can have the same result abroad.