Albany – Assemblyman Felix W. Ortiz, Chair of the New York State Subcommittee on Sweatshops, has asked for the people of New York not to forget the Tragedy of “The Shirtwaist Factory” Fire of March 25, 1911 which claimed the lives of 146 people and left 70 more seriously injured. The Triangle Waist Company was in many ways a typical sweatshop in the heart of Manhattan, located at 23-29 Washington Place, at the northern corner of Washington Square East. Low wages, excessively long hours, and unsanitary and dangerous working conditions were the hallmarks of sweatshops at the time, including The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.
Near closing time on Saturday afternoon, March 25, 1911, a fire broke out on the top floors of the Asch Building in the Triangle Waist Company. At the time of the fire the only safety measures available to the workers were 27 buckets of water and fire escapes that would collapse when people tried to use them. Most of the doors were locked to keep workers inside, in an aim to stop work-breaks and to maximize the workers production. These measures, or lack thereof, were responsible for the inability of workers to escape the inferno which engulfed both the 9th and 10th floors of the building and resulted in the loss of so many lives. Despite the tireless and heroic efforts of the New York Fire Department, ladders were not high enough to reach the 9th and 10th floors and many workers took the chance of jumping instead of dying by smoke inhalation or fire. Many of the Triangle factory workers were women and children, some as young as 15 years old. They were, for the most part, recent Italian and European Jewish immigrants who had come to the United States with their families to seek a better life.
Even today, sweatshops have not disappeared in the United States. Sweatshops continue to attract workers in desperate need of employment as well as illegal immigrants, who may be anxious to avoid involvement with government agencies. Recent studies conducted by the U.S. Department of Labor found that 67% of Los Angeles garment factories and 63% of New York garment factories violate minimum wage and overtime laws. Ninety-eight percent of Los Angeles garment factories have workplace health and safety problems serious enough to lead to severe injuries or death. Ortiz’s goal is to eliminate sweatshops in society and particularly on our own doorstep. Ortiz stated that “Nobody in America, or the world, should have to work in such hazardous, dangerous, disgusting and unsanitary working conditions, especially in the 21st century.”