Opinion

MPIRG urges college to require safer conditions for workers

This article was written by members of the MPIRG Environmental Justice Taskforce.

Dear Social Responsibility Committee members,

We, the Minnesota Public Interest Research Group (MPIRG), are writing to you today with grave concerns about the safety of workers who produce our university apparel in Bangladesh and around the world in factories that function as literal death traps. As you may know, three of the largest industrial disasters in the history of the garment industry – the Tazreen Fashions factory fire (112 workers dead), the Ali Enterprises factory fire (315 workers dead) and the Rana Plaza collapse (1,132 workers dead) – all have occurred in the last year alone. This crisis of worker safety in the garment industry has reached a breaking point. In order to put an end to these tragedies and ensure that no worker is producing university apparel in an unsafe workplace, we are writing to demand that our university require that our apparel licensees sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh to ensure greater accountability of university licensees for the safety of the workers who make their clothing.

As you know, Bangladesh is now the second-largest garment exporting country in the world, with over 40 total collegiate apparel brands sourcing from the country. This surge in the country’s garment industry has occurred alongside brands and retailers placing relentless price and delivery pressure on local contractors in Bangladesh, who meet these demands by repressing worker rights, paying the lowest wage rate in the world of $37/month and cutting corners on worker safety and building upkeep. Many of the buildings in Bangladesh are poorly constructed with weak foundations and floors illegally added after original construction. Most such buildings lack proper fire exits and contain open stairwells that act as chimneys for smoke rather than escape routes. The latest assessment of factories in Bangladesh by engineers from the Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology found that only one in 10 garment factory buildings were structurally sound, indicating that workplace safety hazards are systemic in Bangladesh. The stark reality is that the next factory fire or building collapse could occur at any moment in a factory producing apparel that bears the name of our university.

Earlier this year, in the wake of the Rana Plaza building collapse, over 80 apparel brands and retailers signed the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, including several large college apparel companies such as Adidas. This historic agreement between global and Bangladeshi unions and apparel brands addresses the root causes of industrial disasters in the garment industry by requiring independent inspections by trained fire safety experts, public reporting of the results of all inspections, mandatory repairs and renovations financed by the brands to address all identified hazards, a central role for workers and their unions, including worker-led safety committees in all factories and access to factories for unions and a legally binding contract between the brands and unions that makes these commitments enforceable.

Macalester College is currently an affiliate of the Worker Rights Consortium (WRC), and as you are aware, the WRC released a statement on October 22nd recommending that affiliate universities require their licensees who produce collegiate apparel in Bangladesh to sign onto the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. Here is the full text of the WRC’s official recommendation to affiliate universities, which was passed unanimously at their October 19th board meeting:

“Recognizing the terrible loss of life among Bangladeshi apparel workers over the last year;

Recognizing the grave ongoing threats to the safety of workers in that country, including workers producing university logo apparel;

Recognizing that there is no labor rights goal more fundamental than preventing workers from being killed on the job;

Recognizing that the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, now signed by more than 100 brands and retailers, is a ground-breaking agreement that holds the promise of bringing an end to the mass fatality disasters in Bangladesh garment factories; and

Recognizing that participation in the Accord is the surest way for licensees to protect the safety of workers in their supply chains in Bangladesh;

The WRC recommends that colleges and universities add, to their existing labor rights requirements for licensees, a requirement that licensees that sourced, produced or purchased collegiate apparel in Bangladesh as of January 1, 2013, or do so at any point thereafter, become signatories to the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.”

This is fully in line with Macalester’s current Apparel Purchasing Code of Conduct, which requires all of Macalester’s apparel to be manufactured in safe workplaces, obviously violated by many brands produced in Bangladesh. That’s why MPIRG is demanding the university enact the WRC’s recommended amendments to Macalester’s Apparel Purchasing Code of Conduct that requires all licensees to sign and remain a party to the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh within 14 days of receiving notification of the requirement. Any failure by licensees to become a party to the Accord will have their contract ended.

Below is the specific language that we wish to add to the Apparel Purchasing Code of Conduct:

  1. Licensees that produce or source licensed apparel from or in Bangladesh, within 14 days of being given notice of this requirement, shall sign and remain a party to the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh.

  2. Licensees shall require their supplier factories to respect the rights of workers to refuse to work under conditions that the worker has reasonable justification to believe are unsafe, without suffering discrimination or loss of pay, including the right to refuse to enter or to remain inside a building that the worker has reasonable justification to believe is unsafe for occupation.

  3. Licensees shall meet directly with any duly constituted union whose members include one or more workers employed in a factory producing collegiate apparel for that licensee, upon that union’s request to the licensee, to discuss any grave risks to worker health and safety that have been identified by workers, their representatives or third party inspectors.

Given that licensees may contemplate discontinuing their collegiate production in Bangladesh in response to this demand, the university must make clear that brands cannot evade the requirement to sign the Accord by cutting and running from Bangladesh. These brands have profited for years off the Bangladesh garment industry; they should be responsible for staying and committing to make the industry safe for workers.

The gravity of the disasters that have occurred in the garment industry in the last year alone creates an obligation to adhere to Macalester’s values of internationalism and social justice, and to the wishes of members of this school’s community, by immediately requiring licensees to sign the accord.

We have met with Doug Rosenberg and the management of the Highlander store, who directed us to you, the Social Responsibility Committee (SRC) for any amendments to our existing Code of Conduct. Furthermore, Macalester’s Code of Conduct specifies the SRC as its enforcement mechanism for the current violations and implementer of outstanding WRC recommendations.

Please let us know when the Social Responsibility Committee is meeting next so we can discuss these issues further. We look forward to your prompt response. If there is anything that would be beneficial to have at the meeting, please let us know.

Sincerely,

Minnesota Public Interest Research Group

November 15, 2013

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