Students petition for UT to cut ties with companies that use sweatshop labor

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UT students light candles during a vigil in front of the Littlefield Fountain. The activists encouraged students to petition against UT to cut its contract with the VF brand, which refuses to sign an accord to insure workers’ safety and pay living wages.
Photo Credit: Thalia Juarez | Daily Texan Staff

Two Bangladeshi-sweatshop-eradication activists urged students to petition for UT to cut its contract with the VF brand — which owns clothing lines such as The North Face, Wrangler and Vans. 

Kalpona Akter, executive director of the Bangladesh Centre for Worker Solidarity, and Mahinur Begum, a survivor of the Rana Plaza factory collapse, which killed more than 1,130 Bangladeshi garment workers in 2013, spoke Wednesday against factory working conditions.

The conditions in the sweatshops were inhumane, according to Begum. The workers worked from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. and coped with a lot of physical and verbal abuse, Begum said. 

“When the company people came to do the auditing, the factory managers trained us on what to say,” Begum said. “We had to claim we were not abused and conditions were safe.”

The Rana Plaza factory collapse was entirely preventable and was a result of negligence by the brands and corporations, Begum said,

“If companies thought we were human, these accidents would not happen,” Begum said. “The responsibility was on the factory owners, my government and the brands sourcing those factories.”

The collapse led to a legally binding contract called the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, according to United Students Against Sweatshops member Andy Flores. The accord holds brands legally accountable for insuring worker safety and paying workers living wages. 

Twenty-one million people are victims of forced labor, a label that includes sweatshop workers, according to the International Labour Organization. The organization also reports that the U.S. generates $150 billion in illegal profit from forced labor each year. 

UT has a contract with the VF brand, one of the biggest apparel brands in the world, Flores said. VF refused to sign the accord, so United Students Against Sweatshops is fighting for UT to cut the contract with the corporation. 

“We need to seek out more ethical and moral apparel brands who will uphold worker safety,” Flores said.  

United Students Against Sweatshops clubs have pushed universities across the country to cut their contracts with brands that use sweatshop labor. As a result, the companies began to work with the workers and make improvements, according to Flores.

Students and workers have power to improve labor conditions when they show solidarity, Akter said. 

"We create a power sandwich that puts pressure on universities and corporations,” Akter said. “We are only asking administration to do the right thing.”