It's Still 1911 in America's Rural Sweatshops

OSHA GRAY DAVIDSON

September 07, 1991|By OSHA GRAY DAVIDSON

Iowa City, Iowa -- The fire that swept through a chicken-processing plant in rural North Carolina and killed 30 workers Tuesday was eerily and tragically similar to another blaze that jolted America's conscience 80 years ago.

On March 25, 1911, 146 employees of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company in New York died in a fire that began in a rag bin and quickly filled three floors of the building with smoke and flames.

The fire's victims were members of society's least powerful groups: They were poor women, most of them immigrants or first-generation Americans with little or no formal schooling. There were few laws then to protect workers from such industrial accidents, and factory owners routinely ignored even those, knowing that inspections were rare, prosecutions for violations half-hearted and fines negligible.

Despite a law that factory doors remain unlocked during working hours, the women trying to escape the blaze at the Triangle Company found the doors bolted shut from the outside. The factory owners said later that this was done to ''keep track of workers.''

When fire broke out at Imperial Food Products in Hamlet, North Carolina, early Tuesday morning, the workers fleeing that blaze found out just how little conditions had changed since the Triangle Company fire. Despite a dizzying matrix of laws, regulations and codes enacted to protect workers, most of the Imperial workers died as the women in New York had: pounding desperately on locked or blocked fire doors. (The death toll at the Imperial plant might have been much higher if one man hadn't somehow managed to kick one of these heavy metal doors off its hinges.)

Poultry factories are the modern incarnation of yesterday's sweatshops. They are dirty and dangerous, and pay pitifully low wages. They are also extremely profitable for their owners. The poultry industry brings in $1.5 billion dollars annually to North Carolina alone.

Like the workers at the Triangle factory, poultry workers across the South represent one of the least powerful segments of our society. They are mostly women, typically African-Americans, with little education and few other job possibilities. Like the victims of the earlier fire, most poultry workers are not represented by unions, but must rely on the government for protection.

But the government shows as little concern for the welfare of these poor rural workers as it did for the poor urban workers of nearly a century ago. Just 41 health and safety inspectors are expected to cover the entire state of North Carolina; state and federal standards would require 114. Few urban factories are regularly inspected; even fewer rural ones are. No one should be surprised that the Imperial factory in the tiny town of Hamlet had never been visited by inspectors in its 11-year history. Neglect is the norm, not the exception.

The poultry industry is just one example of a blight that has swept rural America in the past decade. Under the guise of ''rural development,'' and often courted with promises of tax forgiveness and cash incentives, factories have flocked to the rural South (and increasingly to the rural North as well) to take advantage of a work force made desperate by the agricultural decline of the 1980s. Rural communities through the United States seem to have modeled their economic development plans around the theme: Beggars Can't Be Choosers. Thanks in large part to this kind of ''development,'' the percentage of rural workers whose annual earnings put them below the poverty line (for a family of four) rose from 32 percent to 42 percent during the last decade.

Perhaps some good may yet come from the tragedy in North Carolina. Americans were outraged by the Triangle Shirtwaist fire. Over 100,000 people marched in protest down Broadway. New laws were passed; old ones were finally enforced.

Perhaps Americans can once again find it in their hearts and heads to transform moral outrage into positive action. If so, then out of the ashes of the Imperial factory in Hamlet, North Carolina, will rise a new effort to protect all American workers -- even those who toil out of sight in America's rural sweatshops.

Osha Gray Davidson is the author of ''Broken Heartland: the Rise of America's Rural Ghetto,'' due out next month in paperback by Anchor Books.

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