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College apparel purchasing code of conduct under scrutiny after SRC meeting

On the Friday before spring break, the Social Responsibility Committee (SRC) voted on a proposal to amend Macalester’s guidelines for purchasing apparel in response to recent factory accidents in Bangladesh.

The proposal, authored by members of MPIRG’s Economic Justice Task Force and United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), recommended amendments to Macalester’s Apparel Purchasing Code of Conduct that would require apparel licensees to sign the Bangladeshi Accord on Fire and Building Safety. While the SRC did not accept recommended changes, it has created a subcommittee focused on ensuring the existing code of conduct is enforced.

The proposal recommended the SRC add specific language taken from the Accord to Macalester’s apparel purchasing guidelines. Vice President of Student Affairs Laurie Hamre and chair of the SRC pushed back against adopting Accord language and other committee members questioned the value of amending Macalester’s Apparel Purchasing Code of Conduct. Existing guidelines directly address issues of compliance with local laws, employment standards, and human rights to safe working facilities.

In line with standing practices of the SRC, Hamre said that it is “difficult to make rules and guidelines we can’t enforce” concerning individual licensees’ manufacturing practices, which Accord language would require.

Proposal authors recognize the issue

“…the best way to enforce the code of conduct is to require licensees to sign onto the Accord,” said proposal author Luke Mielke ’16.

Despite this disagreement on new language, members of the SRC were generally supportive of the goals of the proposal’s authors. Alex Bartiromo ’16, who also helped author the proposal, noted that the SRC’s discussion was “much more collegial” than what he had observed in past SRC meetings. He commended members’ focus on “working out kinks in the proposal and moving forward.”

JanSport products in Highlander spur questions of enforcement

According to the WRC, 1,718 people have died in apparel factory accidents in Bangladesh since 2005. In the most notable among this disasters—the Rana Plaza factory collapse in April 2013—1,132 people died, with thousands more injured.

This event brought retailers, labor unions and manufacturers together to create the Bangladeshi Accord on Fire and Building Safety. The Accord is a legally binding agreement that requires signee apparel manufacturers to allow independent inspections, to finance repairs of factories, and to respect workers’ union organizing rights for safe factories.

While conducting research for the proposal, authors discovered JanSport brand apparel in the Highlander. Follett Higher Education Group, the company Macalester contracts to run the Highlander, is in charge of stocking the store with Macalester apparel in accordance with institutional policy. JanSport is a brand of VF Corporation, a company that has refused to sign the Accord. The WRC, of which Macalester has been a member for 14 years, has noted widespread safety violations in VF’s factories.

Instead, VF has opted for an alternative to the Accord, the Alliance for Bangladeshi Worker Safety, which was also formed after the Rana Plaza disaster.

The SRC proposal authors argue that the Alliance insufficiently addresses worker safety issues primarily because it has only been sponsored by corporate funders, such as Walmart and Gap, who appoint their own factory inspectors. Additionally, the Alliance is not legally enforceable and lacks the support of labor and worker organizations. According to the proposal, the Alliance has “no true mechanism to stop another incident.”

JanSport apparel would conflict with Macalester’s existing Apparel Purchasing Code of Conduct. SRC members speculated how JanSport apparel ended up in the Highlander considering Follett is aware of existing policies. Members blamed this failure on a lack of communication amongst Macalester administrators, Follett staff in the Highlander, the WRC, and staff changes in Purchasing and Accounts Payable, the department charged with ensuring responsible purchasing decisions. A representative from Follett was unavailable for comment.

Steps moving forward

Within two hours of the SRC meeting’s conclusion, Hamre emailed the committee’s recommendations to proposal authors. The recommendations included creating a subcommittee charged with enforcing the existing code of conduct.

“The SRC determined existing Apparel Code of Conduct language adequately covers the action you proposed around factory safety and worker rights but is not necessarily followed in a manner that allows for action or enforcement,” the decision read. “A sub-committee of the SRC has been charged to review the document, evaluation the scope and application and determine staff and departments to liaise with the WRC and implement the Code.”

The SRC will recommend to President Brian Rosenberg that all licensees sign the Accord. As part of the recommendation, Rosenberg and the district manager of Follett would require VF to sign the Accord, otherwise contracts with their brands, including JanSport, will be terminated.
Josie Ahrens ’14, a member of the SRC, praised the authors of the proposal.

“They did a really superb job,” Ahrens said, noting that “the burden has fallen on students to make sure the college is upholding its code of conduct.” She felt that it should be up to the college, not student activists, to ensure compliance.

March 28, 2014

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