In the afternoon of March 25, 1911, a deadly fire broke out at the Triangle shirtwaist factory, in New York. A total of 146 garment workers, 123 women and 23 men, lost their lives in the inferno. Most were charred, while some jumped to their death in a futile bid to escape the deadly flames, and still others were asphyxiated by the toxic plumes.
The tragedy shook up the conscience of the American society and there were protests that strengthened the union movement in the USA. Soon, legislation was enacted to protect workers’ rights and ensure safety at the workplace. Over the years, memories of the tragedy were kept alive in popular culture by numerous songs and films. Despite an aversion for "socialism" in the American society, post the Triangle fire tragedy, labour laws in the USA have largely protected the rights of workers, even though the union movement has considerably lost steam.
When one superimposes these historical truths, with the myriad tragedies at workplaces in India, the conscience is numbed. Even before people forgot the Kamala Mills tragedy of last month, catastrophe struck 17 families on January 22, who lost their loved ones in a fire accident at an unauthorised fireworks unit in the Bawana industrial area of Delhi. Many parallels can be drawn between the two tragedies. The victims were mostly poor people who worked under exploitative conditions.
Relatives of a Bawana fire victim mourns at her house in New Delhi on Sunday. (Credit: PTI Photo)
However, there is a stark difference in how the respective societies reacted to the two accidents. Unlike how the American society responded a hundred years ago, we have largely been unmoved by such tragedies that occur across the country almost every day. In fact, on January 22, a total of three fire accidents were reported in the Bawana area. The absolute lack of protests reflects poorly on our collective conscience, (or the lack of it).
It is unthinkable that in a modern society, a hazardous factory can operate illegally in a three-storey building, at an industrial area in the capital of the country. After such heart wrenching accidents, there are often reports that the companies didn’t possess the requisite licences. While the owners of such illegal units need to be severely punished, the authorities must also be questioned. The authorities wash their hands away after penalising the erring owners who happen to come to light after an accident. No questions are asked, and no lessons are learnt. And more lives are lost in subsequent tragedies.
Governments need to introspect and ask their conscience whether their wilful incompetence is pardonable. In a country where one per cent of the population owns about 73 per cent of the wealth, there is bound to be a desperation to seek employment despite having to work in hazardous work environments. Is it therefore, not the moral responsibility of the government to ensure that the vulnerable are protected?
Poor people are often unable to seek legal aid and they continue to be exploited by other employers, often putting their lives at risk. Even victims belonging to the middle class face a cumbersome legal process to seek justice as was witnessed in the Uphaar Cinema fire tragedy of 1997, a case that dragged on for 20 long years.
In a bid to ape the "American dream", we often deride trade unions and the labour movement. Unions are often viewed as sclerotic irritants that are pinioned to antiquated rules and the "old ways". However, without strong labour laws and unions, such tragedies will keep recurring. Further, labour unions safeguard workers’ collective bargaining power that will ensure they have higher wages. Higher wages are essential to ensure people have purchasing power, which, in turn, keeps the wheels of the economy oiled. The economics aside, it is the moral duty of all sections of the society to question the government and prevent such tragedies from recurring.
The centennial year of the Triangle fire tragedy was commemorated by the American civil society which organised films, theatre performances, concerts and art shows to remind the current generation of the importance of workplace safety and rights. This is in stark contrast to our society today, that is crippled by protests over the release of a film. While we bicker over whether the film should be released or not, our authorities are quietly let off instead of being pinned down for their criminal negligence and incompetence.
The government must keep in mind that the path to becoming a developed nation is in pursuing policies that ensure inclusive and sustainable development.