Correction: An earlier version of this column erred on multiple points regarding the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety and the sourcing of the University's apparel from VF Corporation.
On Oct. 29, the halls of the Tower echoed with chants, yells and finally a banner drop calling on students and faculty to join United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS) in their demand that the University cut ties with VF Corporation, the company that supplies our school with imagewear and garments sold at the Co-Op and various stores on The Drag. While the VF goods made in Bangladesh don’t go directly to UT, the workers who are part of any corporation we’re associated with deserve respect. The University needs to terminate its contract and look elsewhere for suppliers, specifically for ones that care about the conditions their workers must face.
Unfortunately, mass production, while convenient for consumers, often comes with a steep price paid in human lives. Following the devastating Bangladesh garment factory collapse in 2013 that killed 1,135 workers and injured 2,500 more, more than 150 companies with ties to that country’s garment industry signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety, which ensures the protection of workers from accidents in hundreds of buildings. In a nutshell, this agreement would ensure regular inspections and safety training to prevent another horrific incident from happening. Unlike the many signatories, however, VF Corporation refused to comply with the terms for their Bangladeshi factories and associate with the Accord. While the company may be trying to protect its bottom line, it’s unconscionable that impoverished men and women working excessive hours to make ends meet have to fear for their lives during their shifts.
The garment workers in Bangladesh are paid the lowest wage in the world, hardly enough for a reasonable standard of living. These same factories that VF Corporation uses to produce their garments have come under fire as even children as young as nine are employed in the shocking conditions. The high demand for cheap apparel forces many children into the business for life, leaving them illiterate as they cannot attend school if they want a roof over their heads.
While VF Corporation claims to care about worker safety, little is done until outsiders cause a scene. While VF is a member of the Alliance For Bangladesh Worker Safety, this group is operationally weak in comparison with the Accord and has performed only mediocre inspections, leading to yet another factory collapse in June which left 29 workers injured. The Alliance does training and inspections but forces the local factories, also under financial pressures, to take out loans to pay for the necessary remodeling of unsafe buildings. In stark contrast, the Accord legally binds parent companies to pay for remodeling, permanently employs local engineers and inspectors to check 50 factories a week and even performs regular checks on the work of the inspectors for an added measure of accountability.
According to USAS, the Worker Rights Consortium achieved victory earlier this year after a 14-month campaign to convince UT to affiliate humanitarian group. But the fight isn’t over. Now, USAS emphasizes the desperate need to advocate for foreign workers by simply switching to another, safer garment provider. So far, student-led labor rights groups have found victory in the same request at 14 other universities — most recently at Cornell University, which saw a similar protest against that school’s involvement with JanSport just this fall.
To aid in the solution beyond merely elucidating the problem, USAS suggests an alternative to VF: Alta Gracia, a Central American company that makes campus gear while paying salario digno – a wage with dignity. While President William Powers Jr. has yet to respond, weeks later, to the letter requesting a contract termination, the group patiently waits while continuing to spread word of their cause.
It’s unsettling to see such a request for change in a humanitarian effort be denied in the recent response from Powers. The apparel industry has no shortage of suppliers. If the University is truly committed to their core value of responsibility, they can seek out another apparel provider. It is not a question of whether it is right to make garment workers work in conditions where they constantly fear for their lives. Rather it is a question of what we can do to change it. UT can start here by terminating their contract with VF Corporation and change the lives of people half a world away. “What starts here changes the world” is plastered all over campus to inspire students, but it means nothing if the University as an institution is not willing to do something so fundamental as end their direct support of human rights violations.
Griffin is a journalism freshman from Houston. Follow Griffin on Twitter @JazmynAlynn.