The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory…a metaphor for the modern high-tech sweat shops – Part 2

Yesterday, I posted a blog on the famous fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in 1911. For those who are following this blog, you may be wondering what this has to do with technology and innovation in America. I don’t want this blog to degenerate into a politically progressive tirade, even though I am an avowed progressive. So please let me explain.

Decay into a latter day gilded age…

I grew up in the hey day of unions. I didn’t associate the egalitarian life that I took  for granted with presence of unions, but I was way too young to connect those dots.   But I lived in a world where if you worked hard, played by the rules, and had a strong moral compass, almost anything was possible. The rags to riches stories were not fairy tails, but were the result of hard work, ingenuity and yes, a bit of good luck.

So it is astounding to me to see how that society has decayed into a new guilded age. Indeed, we seem to moving to an almost semi-feudal system where workers have been commoditized to a point of nearly no return. In this system, there will be winners and losers with far, far more losers than winners.  And contrary to popular mythology, the highly educated brainiacs that bring new technology and medicine to life, will not be part of the protected classes.

We are also in a situation where amoral, almost sociopathic behavior on the part of the financial elite almost guarantees that there will be more Triangle Shirtwaist Factory incidents in the 21st century.

Don’t believe me?  We need look no further than incidents in Walmart where workers were “locked in” during their shifts in the same way the Triangle workers were to see where we are heading. This is, of course, strictly against almost any fire code in the USA, but with enforcement at an all time low due to budgetary constraints, who’s to know? Furthermore who cares if the penalties for violations are mere wrist slaps? If that isn’t enough for you, look at the obvious negligence led to the loss of life and the massive environmental disaster of the deep water Horizon oil rig.   What about the West Fertilizer Company explosion in West Texas? The plant was last inspected by OSHA in 1985 even though the company was sited at that time for several major violations. 15 People were killed and more than 160 injured.

How does this apply to American innovation and progress?

As I’ve said in previous blogs, the notion that the American scientist/innovator is working out of their garage curing cancer or developing the next PC or internet is mere romanticism. Steve Jobs may have been a visionary. He may have seen practical applications to the discoveries made by geeks that they could not see. But he was still a college drop-out who relied on armies of programmers, engineers and designers to turn that vision into reality.  The vast majority of these highly gifted and talent people are employees, not entrepreneurs.  Without them, his vision would have been worth the price of a Jules Verne novel, nothing more.

But those scientists, engineers and programmers are being commoditized in the same way the Triangle Shirtwaist women were 102 years ago. We’ve come full circle only we don’t acknowledge the reality because of all the hype out there about STEM opportunities. You see, the Ph.D.’s the engineers, the scientists, the programmers – these are the seamstresses of the 21st century. Their story is no different. It is one of exploitation, imploding safety nets, zero respect or job security and perhaps permanent disenfranchisement.

Safety too is not a moot issue. When workers aren’t paid to work overtime, but are expected to do so “off the clock”, fatigue is a common result. People get careless because they desperately want to finish up and have few hours respite before having to come back to work. I have seen things like mishandling of toxic wast, radioactive waste and much more in the interests of saving time on the part of workers and money on the part of managers.  As a scientist, I have worked in situations where I was expected to put in over 60 hours but was paid for only 35 hours – and the pay was lousy even for the clocked time. This is not unusual, in fact it is the norm.

Yet the training and degrees required to bring these “ideas” to life take years of training, generally on the worker’s dime. When it gets to a point where the investment is not worth the education, and we are already for many of these disciplines, what happens to our innovative engine?

©2013 – RGHicks –

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