Student Campaign Forces 16 Universities to End Sweatshop Contracts Over Abuses in Bangladeshi Garment Factories
United Students Against Sweatshops has successfully pressured 16 colleges and universities to end their contracts with VF Corp – owner of Jansport, North Face, and Vans – over the company’s refusal to sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a legally-binding agreement between brands and unions – now signed by over 180 brands and retailers – that holds the promise of putting an end to mass fatality disasters in the garment industry VF Corporation, the largest maker of branded apparel in the world, is the parent company of popular brands including the North Face, Vans, Jansport, Timberland, and 32 others. In Bangladesh, VF Corporation sources from 90 factories, employing over 190,000 garment workers.
Following the Rana Plaza factory disaster, and with immense public pressure, brands took action by signing onto a legally binding contract called the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. Currently the Accord has over 180 brands signatories from 21 countries all around the world, including 18 American brands. Although 180 brands including Adidas, H&M, Calvin Klein, and Tommy Hilfiger have made a legally binding commitment to improve safety for the workers producing in Bangladesh, VF has refused to make the same legally-binding commitment and improvements for their workers. University and college students, as part of United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), have spent the last 16 months running a national campaign to demand VF sign onto the Accord. Disappointingly, VF has instead partnered with Walmart to create an alternative, corporate-controlled program called the Alliance for Bangladesh Worker Safety. Since its formation, the Alliance has been extensively criticized for its lack of real worker representation, binding commitments to implement changes called for by independent inspectors, and legal accountability.
VF’s Global Track Record
The abuses within VF’s supply chain, both in Bangladesh and globally, are innumerable. Below is a sampling of cases that demonstrate VF’s involvement in worker exploitation and injustice.
● In December 2010, four Bangladeshi garment workers died and 100 were injured in clashes with police outside a factory owned by the Korean-based YoungOne group, a major producer
of North Face and owner of the rights to North Face in Korea. At issue was failure of the YoungOne factory to implement a new minimum wage increase.
● In 2010, VF was producing at That’s It Sportswear factory in Bangladesh (owned by Hameem Group), which burned, killing 29 workers and injuring more than a hundred. The factory had
illegal construction, no proper fire exits, shoddy wiring, and locked exit doors. Workers were trapped on the top floors of the factory. Many jumped to their deaths. VF had repeatedly inspected the factory and yet had completely failed to address the safety hazards.
● In October of 2012, another VF factory, Eurotex, which was disclosed as a producer of collegiate apparel, burned in Dhaka. This was a major fire, though it did not completely destroy the factory. No one was killed in the fire, because the factory was closed for a holiday – if the fire had occurred during the workday, many could have died. When contacted about this fire, VF claimed that their own disclosure data was wrong and they had stopped using the factory.
● In August of 2013, the Worker Rights Consortium conducted a safety assessment of Optimum Fashion, a long-time VF contract factory producing collegiate apparel. After VF attempted to prevent the WRC from accessing the factory, the WRC’s inspection uncovered a number of very serious safety hazards, all of which constitute violations of university code of conduct provisions requiring licensees to maintain safe workplaces and any of which could result in injury or death to workers. These violations “included inadequate means for workers to escape the factory in the event of a fire and structural flaws that would facilitate the rapid and widespread propagation of deadly smoke throughout the factory building.”
● In January of 2014, a 20 year old YoungOne worker was shot and killed by police during a strike over stolen wages despite promises by YoungOne group to change its practices after the aforementioned 2010 murders. YoungOne produces up to 40% of all of The North Face’s apparel.
● On April 2, 2014, over 48,000 workers walked off the job at the Yue Yuen factory, a supplier for Timberland (a VF brand), in China’s largest strike in recent memory. The Yue Yuen workers had been robbed of years of legally owed social insurance payments and it was only after a massive strike in which several workers were beaten and kidnapped that the factory agreed to begin paying full social insurance and higher wages.
● On June 20, 2014 in Bangladesh, the Medlar Apparels factory caught fire, a factory that has supplied VF apparel as far back as 2007. This fire occurred despite the fact that VF claimed to have “completed 100% of inspections at Bangladeshi factories where VF product is sourced.” The factory was initially successfully evacuated, but workers were instructed to reenter the burning building to fight the fire and presumably save equipment like sewing machines, thus resulting in several workers being injured. VF later applauded their own dangerous training program that teaches workers to fight factory fires.
● Most recently, a potentially fatal inspection procedure was exposed at a VF factory in Bangladesh called Sinha Knitting. In July, the Accord audited Sinha and concluded that the factory’s concrete columns were severely over-stressed, enough so that the Accord recommended immediate closure due to the danger it posed to workers. However prior to this investigation, VF and the Alliance conducted an inspection and gave the factory an “A” rating. A year before these findings were made, the Accord and the Alliance agreed to use standard numbers for calculating the concrete strengths of factories. Fortunately, in the end, documents were found showing that the concrete used in constructing Sinha Knitting was stronger than the standard, making the factory safe for operation. However, the key point here is that the Alliance had no knowledge of these documents and were substituting erroneously high assumptions for the concrete strength in their inspections, despite the risk to workers.
University Campus Contract Cuts
USAS locals across the country are currently pressuring their University administrations to end their business relationships with VF Corporation by cutting ties with Jansport and VF Imagewear unless the company agrees to sign the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. Thus far, students have successfully forced 19 contract cuts at 16 universities seen below:
American - JanSport
Arizona State - JanSport, VF Imagewear
Cornell University - JanSport
Emerson - JanSport
Macalester College - JanSport
Boston U - JanSport
NYU - JanSport
Oberlin College - JanSport
Penn State - VF Imagewear
Rutgers - JanSport, VF Imagewear
Syracuse - VF Imagewear
University of Florida - JanSport and VF Imagewear
University of Illinois-Chicago - JanSport
University of Michigan - VF Imagewear
University of Wisconsin-Madison - VF Imagewear
Washington State University - JanSport
Additionally, USAS has successfully forced 25 universities to require Accord affiliation as a condition of their business relationship and have terminated contracts with brands that refuse. Of these 25, the above 16 Universities have followed through on their commitment to date.
REI is one of the largest outdoor apparel retailers in the United States. Over the last nine months, USAS students and supporters across the country have held hundreds of actions at REI stores, demanding the company sever its contract with the North Face, a VF Corporation brand. The protests, led by members of USAS, escalated in July leading to 21 student arrests at a Maryland location.
Environmental and social justice organizations including Green America, the Rainforest Action Network, the International Labor Rights Forum, and SumOfUs have all sent letters directly to REI asking the company to stop doing business with the North Face unless the brand signs onto the Accord. Given REI’s strong bylaws and socially conscious image, many have found it surprising the company has refused to distance itself from the sweatshop-made clothing line.