Triangle Shirtwaist Company, 1911:
Workers recounted their helpless efforts to open the ninth floor doors to the Washington Place stairs. They and many others afterwards believed they were deliberately locked-- owners had frequently locked the exit doors in the past, claiming that workers stole materials. For all practical purposes, the ninth floor fire escape in the Asch Building led nowhere, certainly not to safety, and it bent under the weight of the factory workers trying to escape the inferno. Others waited at the windows for the rescue workers only to discover that the firefighters' ladders were several stories too short and the water from the hoses could not reach the top floors. Many chose to jump to their deaths rather than to burn alive.
Looking back to that night, Michael Rodriguez still has trouble believing the situation he faced when he was stocking shelves on the overnight shift at the Sam's Club in Corpus Christi, Tex.
It was 3 a.m., Mr. Rodriguez recalled, some heavy machinery had just crushed his ankle, and he had no idea how he would get to the hospital.
The Sam's Club, a Wal-Mart subsidiary, had locked its overnight workers in, as it always did, to keep robbers out and, as some managers say, to prevent employee theft. As usual, there was no manager with a key to let Mr. Rodriguez out. The fire exit, he said, was hardly an option — management had drummed into the overnight workers that if they ever used that exit for anything but a fire, they would lose their jobs.
"My ankle was crushed," Mr. Rodriguez said, explaining he had been struck by an electronic cart driven by an employee moving merchandise. "I was yelling and running around like a hurt dog that had been hit by a car. Another worker made some phone calls to reach a manager, and it took an hour for someone to get there and unlock the door."
The reason for Mr. Rodriguez's delayed trip to the hospital was a little-known Wal-Mart policy: the lock-in. For more than 15 years, Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world's largest retailer, has locked in overnight employees at some of its Wal-Mart and Sam's Club stores. It is a policy that many employees say has created disconcerting situations, such as when a worker in Indiana suffered a heart attack, when hurricanes hit in Florida and when workers' wives have gone into labor.
"You could be bleeding to death, and they'll have you locked in," Mr. Rodriguez said. "Being locked in in an emergency like that, that's not right."...
Yeah, these situations aren't exactly comparable -- if you're locked in at Wal-Mart or Sam's, you can save your life (at the cost of your job, perhaps). Well, fine -- call it Sweatshop Lite. It's still an appalling policy.