It’s Time to Take a Stand


The brightness of the fire is blinding, the heat searing. The smoke, which fills the air, is inescapable. Metal bars enclose the windows and all the doors except for one are locked. All is chaos—young children screaming for their mothers, older men desperately attempting to prise open unyielding windows, teens banging on doors begging for help. But all you can do is jump from the window and hope that you survive.

This was the scene on September 12th, when a raging inferno consumed a textile fire in Karachi, Pakistan. The death toll has risen above 300, including several children. Mothers weep for their lost children and widows mourn their departed husbands. Simply speaking, a tragedy occurred in Pakistan two weeks ago. But we shouldn’t pay attention because of the death toll or the gory details. We should pay attention because this fire was not an isolated event. No, it was the result of a clearly flawed system which was doomed from the start.

But the story of why this fire is so important begins 101 years ago on the busy streets of Manhattan.

On March 25, 1911, a deadly fire swept through a garment factory in New York City. The blaze killed 146 workers, mostly poor immigrant women. So many died because—guess what?—the doors were locked, and poor safety measures prevented easy escape. The fire, one of the worst industrial accidents in US history, led to many factory safety reforms. The nation was outraged that such a horrific incident could have happened on US soil, and so we changed. But the recent Karachi fire is proof that we haven’t changed as much as we may think.

In this day and age, many of the products that we buy are made or assembled overseas, and many of these products are made by workers living in abysmal conditions. Low pay, dangerous working conditions, and long hours are often the norm for clothing produced in places such as Pakistan, Bangladesh, or China. But this is a fact that we nearly always ignore.

The problem is that when we buy things, we frequently don’t consider the complex chain of events which led to that product landing in your hands. Let’s consider, say, a pair of jeans.

Its story starts a world away in a cotton field, gently waving with the breeze. The scene might be considered idyllic- as long as you ignore the children, laboring in the next field over rather than going to school, and the stench of the pesticides dousing the land with toxins. The cotton then gets spun into threads, which are turned into fabric and then transformed into the stylish pair of jeans you see in a nearby store window. In the course of their journey, those jeans will have been touched by countless hands, and countless injustices will be committed along the way.

Independent watchdog groups such as the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights have conducted numerous exposes on factories with unsafe working conditions, but they have been pushed aside my nearly all mainstream media outlets. When companies such as Macy’s, Forever 21, and H+M have been shown to be sourcing from factories where harassment and abuse run rampant, wages are extremely low, and sick days are forbidden.

Last winter, two ESPN reporters went to factories in Cambodia where many sports related apparel is made. They discovered horrific conditions. One woman, a 28 year old named Kol Malay, spoke about what working in the sweatshops is like. She earns 29 cents an hour sewing, and she works 10 hours a day 6 days a week. That wage is about 1/3 of the living wage in Phnom Penh.

So, you ask, how does this have to do with a fire in Pakistan?

The fire which occurred on September 12th was a fire that was inevitable under the current conditions. Safety regulations are extremely lax in many of the places where we source our clothing, and the regulators are far too cozy with the manufacturers.

We would never let a fire like this happen in America, but when it happens in Pakistan we hardly bat an eyelash. We like buying dirt cheap clothing, even if there are deep ethical repercussions. But that’s wrong. Just because the people making your clothes live a world away and speak a different language and have a different culture, their rights are not any different from ours.

It’s time that we take a stand for what is right and refuse to take part in the atrocities committed by large clothing companies. It shouldn’t take hundreds burning to death to illustrate how wrong the current system is. But a tragedy has occurred, and now all we can do is try to prevent the next one.

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